Floodwaters receding in Nebraska, but long and costly recovery lies ahead

Floodwaters receding in Nebraska, but long and costly recovery lies ahead
Amelia Fritz, left, hugs her daughter Heather Rockwell in Glenwood, Iowa on March 18. They were evacuated from Pacific Junction, Iowa after floodwaters hit the town on Sunday night. They're part of 15 relatives all staying in the same house or in a camper in the front driveway. (World-Herald News Service)

More than two-thirds of Nebraska’s counties in a state of emergency. Fourteen bridges damaged or destroyed, severing major transportation corridors. Extensive livestock and crop losses. And three confirmed deaths — so far.

“The most extensive damage our state has ever experienced,” Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts said Monday, summing up the impact of the past week’s catastrophic flooding.

As floodwaters in some areas began to level out or slowly recede, the reality set in that cleanup and reconstruction efforts would stretch months — or longer.

Five days after the flooding began in earnest, the magnitude of devastation continued to come into focus as 64 of Nebraska’s 93 counties and four tribal areas had declared a state of emergency.

Some Nebraskans returned to their homes Monday to find structural damage and water in their basements. Others, still barred from their residences by washed-out roads, were stuck wondering if they had anything to return to.

And across the Missouri River, ongoing flooding in places like the small town of Pacific Junction, Iowa, is causing millions of dollars in damage.

Ricketts said Nebraska officials don’t have an estimate of how long the road to recovery might be, but he noted that during historic floods in 2011, water in Plattsmouth, Nebraska, didn’t recede for 3½ months. Only then could the rebuilding begin.

As of Monday, state officials had determined that 11 bridges would need to be replaced and three others would require reconstruction.

Combine the bridge work with about 200 miles of roads that will need repairs, and Kyle Schneweis, director of the State Department of Transportation, said he’s confident that “hundreds of millions of dollars” will be necessary.

Meanwhile, agriculture is taking a big hit. Steve Nelson, president of the Nebraska Farm Bureau, estimated that there will be $400 million to $500 million in livestock losses and about $400 million in crop losses.

A third death as a result of the flooding was reported Monday. An 80-year-old Columbus, Nebraska, woman died after high waves and wind gusts of 60 mph prevented rescue teams from freeing her from her home in rural Columbus. Her body was retrieved Saturday.

The Nebraska Supreme Court said 19 infirm people assigned state-funded public guardians had to find emergency homes because of the flooding.

Many commuters in the Omaha area will feel the flood’s effects in their drive times. Flooded roads added 30 minutes Monday to Mike Ostblom’s normal 25-minute commute from Yutan to Papillion.

Nebraska Highway 92 across the Platte River is closed, so Ostblom had to head west to Mead, south to Ithaca and then farther south to Ashland, and then up Interstate 80 to 144th Street.

He expects that heavier-than-normal traffic will be unavoidable for a while.

“This will be continuing until the roads get open or fixed,” he said. “It’s not going to get any better anytime soon.”

Major Gen. Daryl Bohac, the adjutant general of the Nebraska National Guard, said drivers need to continue observing road closures, even as floodwaters recede. He said roads and bridges need to be assessed for structural integrity before they can be reopened.

Bryan Tuma, assistant director of the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency,

said there have been a number of propane tanks floating downstream but no reports of major hazardous releases and no reports of problems with pipelines or communications networks.

The governor’s emergency fund stood at $3.9 million before last week’s storms, and state costs to date have amounted to $650,000, Bohac said. Although the fund is lower than the $5 million target, he said he thinks that it will be sufficient for now.

Small signs of hope have popped up in some areas like spring flowers. A Sunday night convoy transporting donations to Fremont elicited cheers from those who had been marooned in the city since Friday, trapped by water on all sides.

Another convoy made its way to the city Monday afternoon. And Highway 36 into Fremont opened Monday to one-lane traffic directed by a pilot car.

The state is in the process of applying for an expedited declaration of disaster from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Tuma said. The FEMA administrator was expected to be in Nebraska on Tuesday along with a management team.

Vice President Mike Pence will also be in Nebraska on Tuesday to survey damage from the flood, according to a tweet from White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. He is expected to be joined in his tour by Ricketts and Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds.

“Thank you to First Responders and many volunteers helping those affected!” Sanders tweeted.

How to help those affected by the flooding

Bottled water and short showers: Water and sewer issues persist in Lincoln, North Bend, Peru

Water and sewer problems caused by flooding continued Tuesday in Lincoln; North Bend; parts of Boyd County; Glenwood, Iowa; and elsewhere, forcing residents and businesses to ration water or resort to using portable showers and toilets.

The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services said Tuesday that six public drinking water systems aren’t in operation, including ones in Boyd County, Peru and Sarpy County Sanitary Improvement District 97.

Nearly 50 wastewater treatment facilities, including ones connected to Omaha, Nebraska City and Columbus, have reported problems, including cases where wastewater isn’t being fully treated before it’s discharged.

In North Bend, between Fremont and Schuyler, the city’s 1,200 residents have been warned not to drink tap water and to avoid flushing toilets, after flooding damaged the city’s wastewater facility. Dozens of Porta-potties have been set up at a park, the mini-mart and at North Bend Central Junior/Senior High School.

“I can flush my toilet and I can take a shower and I have no problems at all with my drainage, but it pushes water into somebody else’s basement,” said North Bend City Clerk Theresa Busse.

Flooding shut down Omaha’s Papillion Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant on Friday and the plant is still inaccessible due to submerged roads, Omaha Public Works Director Bob Stubbe told City Council Tuesday. It could be weeks or months before it’s up and running again, and sewage is currently being discharged into Papillion Creek.

The Metropolitan Utilities District, which provides water to much of the Omaha metro area, continues to assure customers that its daily tests show drinking water is safe.

About three-fourths of Boyd County, west of Niobrara, is without water after floodwaters and ice jams destroyed the Spencer Dam and damaged a Rural Water District pipeline.

Most pressing is that about 500 rural farms and ranchers are without water, meaning livestock that have survived have not had water for nearly a week, said Douglas Fox, director of Region 24 Emergency Management, which covers Boyd, Brown, Cherry, Keya Paha and Rock counties.

On the Santee Indian Reservation, the tribe’s water system was not operational until Monday afternoon. Even then, the water was only suitable for flushing toilets and showers.

Mandatory water restrictions continue in Lincoln, Nebraska’s second-largest city, with residents asked to slash their water usage in half and industrial and commercial sites asked to reduce by 25 percent.

City officials said it’s unclear how much longer the restrictions will last.

City wells on the Platte River near Ashland have been affected by flooding and power outages related to the historic flooding that hit Nebraska last week. The water quality is fine, Mayor Chris Beutler stressed — the supply is the problem.

Residents are asked to take short showers, flush toilets sparingly and postpone running washing machines and dishwashers. Car washes are shut down and restaurants have been asked to use disposable dishes.

It’s spring break at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, which has greatly reduced the university’s water usage.

Classes are back on Wednesday at Peru State College, after classes were canceled Monday and Tuesday due to water supply issues, said spokesman Jason Hogue.

Levees broke outside Peru on Saturday night, swamping the city’s water treatment plant. Water is being trucked in from Auburn and the area is under a boil-water advisory as a precaution since new water is being added from an outside source.

“We expect to be drinking bottled water for awhile,” Hogue said. “There’s not a crisis. We’re not thirsty.”

Man missing after Spencer Dam collapse is identified

A Nebraska man who is still missing after floodwaters demolished the Spencer Dam on Thursday has been identified.

Emergency Management Director Douglas Fox confirmed that Kenny Angel is missing. Angel lived on the Holt County side of the Niobrara River, Fox said, and was in his house near the dam when he went missing. His family has been unable to be reached.

Fox is director of Region 24 Emergency Management, which covers Boyd, Brown, Cherry, Keya Paha and Rock Counties.

Also missing is Scott E. Goodman, 30, of Norfolk, who the Norfolk Daily News reported was seen standing on his car and then being carried away by a surge of water.

Three people have died in the floods: Betty Hamernik, 80, of Columbus; James Wilke, 50, of Columbus; and Aleido Rojas Galan, 55, of Norfolk.

Casino offers shelter to Santee Tribe

On the Santee Indian Reservation in northeast Nebraska, the tribe’s Ohiya Casino and Resort became a temporary shelter for about 200 tribal members displaced by flooding and power outages.

“The casino has taken care of them,” said Roger Trudell, tribal chairman of the Santee Sioux Nation, who planned to move back to his home Tuesday night.

The tribe’s water system was knocked out by flooding and wasn’t operational until Monday afternoon, and the water was only suitable for flushing toilets and showers.

On Tuesday, a shipment of bottled water and other supplies arrived from Omaha-area churches, Trudell said. And a GoFundMe account started by the tribe (for a new, $15,000 water pump and other repairs) has raised $6,400.

“We appreciate every cent that’s been donated to us,” Trudell said.

Others wishing to donate can call the tribal headquarters in Niobrara at 1-402-857-2772.

Some roads reopening

Some roads in the Omaha area have reopened after being closed because of flooding.

Nebraska Highway 64 (West Maple Road) from Waterloo to Omaha is open. Drivers can take West Maple to U.S. Highway 275 and head north into Fremont.

Highway 275 is open between Waterloo and Fremont, but it’s closed south of Waterloo.

U.S. Highway 77 north and south out of Fremont also is open.

Also, both directions of Nebraska Highway 370 (Mission Avenue) are open at the Bellevue Toll Bridge.

Nebraska Highway 36 into Fremont has one lane of traffic open, the Nebraska Department of Transportation said. Traffic will navigate the highway Tuesday under the direction of a pilot car. Officials ask that motorists be patient while using the highway.

In northeast Nebraska, U.S. Highway 275 is open from O’Neill to Wisner, the transportation department said. Farther south, officials also announced that U.S. Highway 136 in Beatrice is once again open to traffic.

U.S. Highway 81 south of Columbus is open to passenger vehicles only, the Nebraska State Patrol said on Twitter.

West Dodge Road heading west out of Omaha has significant damage, as does West Center Road, roads officials said.

West Dodge remains closed from east of 204th Street (the entrance into Elkhorn) west to Highway 275.

Check for other updates at www.511.nebraska.gov.

Preliminary damage estimates released

The Nebraska Emergency Management Agency has posted estimates of monetary damages from flooding and recent storms across the state. The numbers are updated as local emergency management teams are able to assess the damage across their counties. You can see the full list here.

Timeline for levee repairs uncertain

It will be some weeks before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has a solid idea of the extent of damage and amount of time it will take to repair federal levees, according to Col. John Hudson, commander of the Omaha District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Levees, which line streams across Nebraska, are owned and operated by various levels of government.

The corps oversees those that have met federal standards for height and construction.

“There is an enormous workload ahead before we can at least begin stabilizing flood protection,” he said. “It’s going to take us several weeks to get our arms around it, just because of the size of the damage.”

Federal levees can be found around local communities, but it will be along the Missouri River from Bellevue southward that the corps will have its biggest challenge, he said.

“It’s too hard to speculate, at this point,” how long it will take to repair the entire system, he said.

The corps considers all of its Nebraska/Iowa levees south of Offutt Air Force Base to be compromised. Some have holes in them and aren’t functioning at all; others have been weakened yet still perform a level of flood protection.

With spring rains ahead, the gaps and weaknesses in the levee system will leave communities vulnerable to new flooding.

Light rain expected Tuesday

Light rain is expected Tuesday, with .10 to .20 of an inch of rain expected north of the Platte River.

The National Weather Service forecast calls for almost half an inch of rain south of Interstate 80 in southeast Nebraska. This system will rotate through the area Tuesday, with most of the precipitation ending in southeast Nebraska and southwest Iowa Tuesday evening.

A warming trend  is predicted, with temperatures from the 40s Tuesday to well into the 50s by Thursday afternoon. Temperatures are expected to break 60 on Friday.

At 6 a.m. Tuesday, the water level on the Elkhorn River at Waterloo measured 13.5 feet, just below the 14-foot flood stage. The projection is for the river to fall to 9.1 feet by 7 a.m Wednesday.

The Missouri River at Omaha was at 33.8 feet as of 5:45 a.m. The river’s flood stage is 29 feet. Water is not expected to dip under that mark until sometime Saturday.

Fort Calhoun nuclear storage called safe by OPPD

The spent nuclear fuel stored on an elevated concrete pad  on the Omaha Public Power District property that hosted the Fort Calhoun Nuclear Station is safe from the flooding of 2019, OPPD officials say.

OPPD is decommissioning and deconstructing the former nuclear power plant north of Omaha that saw significant flooding in 2011, and the parts that remain have been protected from Missouri River floodwaters with artificial barriers and sandbags, officials said.

The fuel sits inside steel-lined, air-tight, waterproof concrete casings on the pad.

Nextdoor to be used as messaging system

Waterloo and Valley residents are encouraged to register on the Nextdoor app either on mobile devices or on the website, www.nextdoor.com. The Douglas County Emergency Management Agency will use this app to send out key messages in the coming days to those who live in the affected areas.

>> Anyone with concerns about pets in flooded areas can contact the Nebraska Humane Society at 402-444-7800. The humane society was headed to western Douglas County on Monday with rescue personnel to check on animals.

>> Any affected people with unmet needs can contact 211 for assistance, officials said. Family reunification needs also can be directed to 211.

In addition, officials with the Metropolitan Utilities District said drinking water provided by MUD continues to meet all state and federal standards. MUD is monitoring conditions on the Missouri and Platte Rivers and at all of its facilities.

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