Hailed as heroes, two men died fighting to save Kansas town from flooding
The Star set out to tell the stories of 10 hometown heroes. Here is one of them.
In the summer of 2011, when record rains and snowmelt turned the Missouri River into a monster, Craig Sheppard and Bill Brubaker gave all they had to save the little town of Elwood, Kan.
They died doing it.
Turned out the levee held the river back. But nobody knew that was going to happen. They all remembered the flood of 1993. So people were scared and ready to run if the water came like it did back then.
The fear reigned for a hundred days. Sheppard and Brubaker were on the levee, sometimes at night as the river roared past, looking for signs of trouble. Going without sleep and eating on the run, day after day after day.
People call them heroes for what they did back then.
Brubaker, 59, was the out-of-towner. He came from Lawrence to help. A professional in emergency management, he was a veteran of Hurricane Katrina and the F5 tornado in Greensburg, Kan.
Sheppard was the local boy. A river rat. He was 56, a retired school custodian who had fished the river all his life.
“Watch it, listen to it,” he used to say of the river. “It’ll tell you what it’s going to do.”
He affectionately called the levee, “that pile of dirt.”
On Aug. 10, when Brubaker didn’t show up for a meeting at the Elwood fire station, he was found dead in a chair in his motel room.
Sheppard died Oct. 12, a week before the Army Corps of Engineers declared the Elwood flood over. Heart attacks had claimed both Brubaker and Sheppard.
“Neither one of them was going to quit,” Elwood Fire Chief Alvin Wood said. “There was too much at stake and they did it to save this place. This was Craig’s town, and Bill acted like it was his.”
Five years later, Wood remembers it all like it was yesterday.
First came record snowfall in the upper Rockies. Then came the rain — almost a year’s worth in just a few weeks. Lakes filled, small streams overflowed. Things came to a head when officials opened the gates of Gavins Point Dam in South Dakota, releasing a record 160,000 cubic feet of water per second.
Previous record: 70,000.
Downstream, some levees failed while water poured over others. Towns flooded.
Elwood, just across the river from St. Joseph, got ready, determined not to see a repeat of 1993, when the town flooded and people evacuated. Wood got nearly 7 feet of water in his house back then.
For the recent flood, the call went out for sandbaggers. National Guard units showed up to help. Patrols searched for “sand boils” — leaks under the levee that could weaken the barrier.
At one point in the more than 100-day battle, Sheppard, who served on the levee board, collapsed on the levee from exhaustion and dehydration. His daughter got on him for eating gas station food and going without rest.
Wood remembers one night when he and Sheppard stood on the levee and pointed flashlights at the 230,000 cubic feet of water that rushed past every second. Wood told Sheppard it was still rising.
“It’ll hold,” Sheppard said in the dark.
“Well, if it don’t, they’ll never find us,” Wood told him.
Brubaker didn’t have to be in Elwood. He’d retired in 2001 after 31 years with the Lawrence Fire Department. But in 2005 he became a regional coordinator for the Kansas Division of Emergency Preparedness.
“From the day he walked through the door at the fire station, this was his community,” Wood said. “He could get on the phone and get us help. He was out on the levee with us all the time.
“He was just a super guy and he acted like this was his town. When we needed something, he got on the phone and got it for us.”
Brubaker came from a family of firefighters. A father and grandfather. The day he died, he had talked to his wife about retiring again after Elwood.
“He almost made it,” Denise Brubaker said. “But he wasn’t going to leave that town until it was over, until the town was safe. That’s the kind of man he was.
“He never quit.”
Craig Sheppard was a father of five. He took care of his wife, who had suffered a stroke. And when the flood of 2011 came, he took care of the town. A sister-in-law told The Star back then that Sheppard was the voice of calm when the town panicked.
“He’d leave in the morning and come home in the night if he came home at all. He spent whole nights out on that levee.”
More than 400 people attended his memorial service.
Kim Monical, his daughter, said: “People tell me he’s a hero, that he saved the town. He just wasn’t going to be happy until everybody came home. And when they did, when the water let up, it was time for him to go.”
Wood, the fire chief, said he lost a good friend in Sheppard.
“And Bill, he came to town and nobody knew him,” Wood said. “Two days later, we all knew him because we knew he was with us.”
A day not long ago, Wood drove to the river landing under the U.S. 36 bridge. The river level was down. Wood says that where he stood, high and dry, he would have been 10 feet under water in 2011.
The problem back then was that too much water had been held back in recreation lakes upstream. Then they had to let it go in record amounts. Wood doesn’t think that will happen again.
“I don’t think there will ever be another flood like that,” said Wood, who was hospitalized for heat exhaustion. “But people remember what happened here. They remember how long and how hot that fight was.
“And they’ll always remember those two guys who died.”
Donald Bradley: 816-234-4182