HILL CITY — Tim Belleau watched grimly as a group of community volunteers used a loader to push shin-deep water toward a shallow drainage canal. Just a few lots over, his business — Belleau Brothers Seed — was so surrounded by floodwater that he was unable even to get close enough to assess the damage.
But he was bracing himself for the bad news likely to come. A watermark left by the receding flood waters showed the warehouses holding his seed inventory had been several feet under water.
“There will be damage, yes,” Belleau said. “We have a lot of seed in there that’s rotten now.”
He estimated there could be several thousand dollars of possible loss in inventory alone — and his insurance agent had just informed him flood damage likely wouldn’t be covered.
Just south of Hill City along U.S. Highway 283, a cluster of residential homes and businesses sustained heavy damage from flash flooding as a result of Memorial Day thunderstorms. There were several unofficial reports of up to 12 inches of rain just south of the small Graham County community. The heavy precipitation caused a small water channel known as Brush Creek to overflow the berm separating it from nearby businesses and homes.
Residents could be seen Tuesday morning leaving their homes with garbage bags full of personal belongings, which were stuffed inside car trunks or loaded on trailers as they prepared to evacuate. Several homes were damaged, but utilities also were turned off, which would have made it difficult for them to stay.
The floods swept through an RV park just south of town, and a small metal building — likely coming from a short-term cabin rental property — was washed from its foundation and swept several yards away by the rushing water Monday evening.
A few vehicles also had been swept downstream into brush and tree limbs, which were scattered over the entire area. The water also had washed out chunks of several county roads, and Kansas Highway 24 remained closed Tuesday due to a large sinkhole near Nicodemus.
Residents told harrowing stories of watching cattle get carried away by the water, as area farmers and ranchers worked to herd the livestock to safety.
Jeff Reynolds, Morland city manager, was on scene early Tuesday to monitor a nearby natural gas line that serves that town, as well as a Hill City mobile home park hit hard by the floods. Service was promptly discontinued to the affected homes, and the meters likely would need replaced, he said.
The heavy rain started near Hill City early Monday afternoon, and then stayed there for hours on end as the deluge worsened, Reynolds said.
“With the farm economy the way it is, oil prices down, not a lot of jobs … people are already hurting,” Reynolds said. “This is something they sure didn’t need right now, but not a lot you can do about it.”
Buck Watkins also kept a watchful eye on the property he manages, which is home to the Millbrook Wranglers shooting club. The property was covered by water Tuesday, and one of the outbuildings, a pump house, had disappeared completely.
“I think all the buildings are OK, except for one that’s blown away,” Watkins said. “We don’t know where it is. It’s gone.”
Watkins seemed to have his sense of humor in check, as he recounted how he built the shooting range from the ground up over a period of 18 years. He does not own the property, but serves as the caretaker of the land and shooting range.
He has lived near Hill City for the last three decades, and didn’t hesitate when asked if he had ever seen such flooding in the area.
“Never,” he said.
Several neighbors and community members rushed to help those affected by the flooding, including Sage Tremblay. The Penokee resident works in Hill City and was on site to help his boss, whose nearby home was damaged in the floods. Using a frontloader, Tremblay worked to usher water through a shallow channel, and was waiting for an OK from utility companies so he could make the ditch deeper, allowing water to drain more quickly.
“If we could dig it another couple feet, we could get most of this drained off,” Tremblay said.
“We need to get it off the guys that have businesses and homes and everything else down there,” Watkins said.
Despite the overwhelming damage visible Tuesday, Watkins expressed optimism the neighborhood will recover — though it might take the help of friends and neighbors.
“We’ll shoot again,” Watkins said. “We’re tough. But I don’t think I’ll be young enough to (build) it again.”
While residents did all they could to clean up damage from Monday’s storms, many also were keeping a wary eye on the sky. Much of northwest Kansas had another chance for rain and thunderstorms Tuesday night.
“There’s nowhere for it to go,” Reynolds said of additional rain water. “The ground’s not going to soak any more; it’s done soaking. It’s just going to run.”