In flood-damaged Nebraska, VP Mike Pence offers government relief: ‘We’re going to stand with you’

In flood-damaged Nebraska, VP Mike Pence offers government relief: ‘We’re going to stand with you’
World-Herald News Service

Amid a chilly dampness that has become all too familiar in these parts, Vice President Mike Pence delivered a message: America is here for Nebraska and Iowa.

“We’re going to stand with you and be with you until these communities come all the way back,” the vice president said, shielded from rain under the wing of Air Force Two shortly after landing at Eppley Airfield Tuesday.

During a three-hour visit that included an aerial survey of floodwaters and meetings with first responders and victims, Pence said the federal government will expedite disaster relief in response to the historic flooding that has affected much of the Midwest.

“Help is on the way,” Pence said.

During his visit, Pence heard from Gov. Pete Ricketts, Sen. Ben Sasse and Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska, along with Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds and Sen. Joni Ernst. Pence said the Federal Emergency Management Agency has received a disaster declaration request from Nebraska and is expecting a similar one from Iowa.

Ricketts met Tuesday with FEMA Regional Director Paul Taylor and signed an expedited request for disaster assistance. Ricketts had said previously that he was urging top Trump administration officials to move swiftly on a disaster declaration.

Major disaster declarations unlock federal assistance money to help both public entities and individuals recover from devastating storms — but the process for those declarations can take weeks or even months.

“We’ve been in touch with a lot of the officials in Washington, D.C., stressing the need to get this expedited so that we can tap into those resources both on the public assistance side and the individual assistance side, because of the scope and nature of this disaster,” Ricketts said.

Members of Nebraska’s congressional delegation sent a letter to President Donald Trump on Tuesday in support of Ricketts’ request.

Typically, state officials would wait until after a severe weather event has run its course, then survey the damage and provide a detailed report to FEMA. The federal agency conducts a preliminary damage assessment to put a cost on the disaster as it works with the state to complete a governor’s official request. Then it’s ultimately up to the president to make the disaster declaration.

But the damage to Nebraska is so widespread and obvious that a disaster declaration seems assured.

“Quite honestly, this event has been overwhelming,” said Bryan Tuma, Nebraska Emergency Management Agency assistant director. “We have very little doubt in our minds that we would qualify. We have met all the thresholds for a federal disaster declaration.”

FEMA spokesman Michael Cappannari said the time required for preliminary damage assessments, or PDAs, can vary based on how many counties are affected and weather conditions. But he noted that the agency is working with Nebraska on expediting its request.

“This would not eliminate the need for PDAs once the conditions allow for it, but it could at least start federal assistance flowing to the state in terms of funding available for reimbursement as a result of damages to public infrastructure,” Cappannari said.

Nebraskans are urged to share information about the storm’s impact with their local emergency management officials so they can use it as part of the FEMA assessment process. That includes taking photographs of affected property and making detailed lists of any lost or damaged items.

Nebraska plans to request a declaration for both federal assistance intended to restore public infrastructure and a program that provides assistance to individuals affected by the storm.

Pence witnessed both during his visit. Shortly after arriving Tuesday, the vice president boarded a chopper to get a bird’s-eye view of the flood damage.

After the air tour, Pence, Ricketts, Sasse and Bacon met a group of Waterloo first responders on West Dodge Road, above the swollen banks of the Elkhorn River.

“I never fail to be inspired at moments like this, when communities come together and people volunteer to put themselves in harm’s way to help others,” Pence said.

The vice president and his entourage then continued on to Elkhorn Middle School, which has become a shelter for some families displaced by the flood. A few people shed tears while Pence offered hugs. At one point, he huddled with a small group to pray.

Before Pence left the middle school to return to the airport, he received a quick briefing from representatives of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who told the vice president that they expect “an enormous amount of work ahead of us.”

Ricketts signs expedited request for federal disaster assistance for Nebraska

WASHINGTON — Nebraska officials are hoping to accelerate the timetable for receiving federal disaster assistance in the wake of the past week’s epic destruction.

Gov. Pete Ricketts met Tuesday with Federal Emergency Management Agency Regional Director Paul Taylor and signed an expedited request for disaster assistance. Ricketts had said previously that he was urging top Trump administration officials to move swiftly on a disaster declaration.

Major disaster declarations unlock federal assistance money to help both public entities and individuals recover from devastating storms — but the process for those declarations can take weeks or even months.

“We’ve been in touch with a lot of the officials in Washington, D.C., stressing the need to get this expedited so that we can tap into those resources both on the public assistance side and the individual assistance side, because of the scope and nature of this disaster,” Ricketts said.

Members of Nebraska’s congressional delegation sent a letter to President Donald Trump on Tuesday in support of Ricketts’ request.

Typically state officials would wait until after a severe weather event has run its course, then survey the damage and provide a detailed report to FEMA. The federal agency conducts a preliminary damage assessment to put a cost to the disaster as it works with the state to complete the governor’s official request. Then it’s ultimately up to the president to make the disaster declaration.

But the damage to Nebraska is so widespread and obvious, that a disaster declaration seems assured.

“Quite honestly, this event has been overwhelming,” Nebraska Emergency Management Agency Assistant Director Bryan Tuma said. “We have very little doubt in our minds that we would qualify. We have met all the thresholds for a federal disaster declaration.”

That means the process will be a little different than what happens following, say, a particularly nasty but contained hailstorm.

“This is a very unusual event,” Tuma said. “We’ve never had an event like this in the history of our state.”

FEMA spokesman Michael Cappannari said the time required for preliminary damage assessments can vary based on how many counties are affected and weather conditions. But he noted that the agency is working with Nebraska on expediting its request.

“This would not eliminate the need for PDAs once the conditions allow for it, but it could at least start federal assistance flowing to the state in terms of funding available for reimbursement as a result of damages to public infrastructure,” Cappannari said.

Nebraskans are urged to share information about the storm’s impact with their local emergency management officials so they can use it as part of the FEMA assessment process. That includes taking photographs of affected property and making detailed lists of any lost or damaged items.

Nebraska plans to request a declaration for both federal assistance intended to restore public infrastructure and a program that provides assistance to individuals impacted by the storm.

The state has only had one individual assistance declaration in its history — that one came in the wake of the 2011 Missouri River flooding.

Flooding of base forces cancellation of Offutt air show in June

The 55th Wing has canceled the 2019 Defenders of Freedom Air & Space Show because of the massive flood that has swamped portions of Offutt Air Force Base.

The show had been scheduled for June 1-2, with the Air Force Thunderbirds as the headline act. In the past, the two-day summer event has drawn as many as 300,000 people.

Last weekend’s historic flooding has left about one-third of the base submerged. About 60 structures, including the 55th Wing headquarters and two major aircraft hangars, have from 2 to 8 feet of water in them, base officials said.

Floodwaters have receded only slightly since cresting on Sunday, and about 3,000 feet of the 11,700-foot runway remains submerged.

In a press release, Wing Commander Col. Michael Manion described the flooding as a “historic disaster” that has made hosting this year’s event “untenable.”

“Assessing the impact to the base is ongoing, and we will recover,” Manion said. “But it is obvious it will be some time before we can return to normal operations or have the capacity to host an event like an air show.”

The air show has been a tradition at Offutt since 1972, but a spotty one in recent years. The show was held in 2014, 2016 and 2018. But it was scrubbed in 2013 because of military budget cuts, in 2015 because of repair work to Offutt’s tarmac and in 2017 because of heavy operational commitments for the Wing’s fleet of 29 RC-135-variant reconnaissance jets.

The Wing is scheduled to relocate its flight operations to Lincoln in December for one year while Offutt’s single runway is rebuilt. That means that there is little chance the show will return before 2021.

The southeast end of the runway remained submerged Tuesday. Base officials used small boats to explore the inundated area south of the runway, which also included the offices of the 55th Security Forces Squadron, 97th Intelligence Squadron, 343rd Reconnaissance Squadron and 55th Maintenance Group. All have been relocated to other quarters on the base.

After an oily sheen was spotted near several swamped oil tanks, base officials deployed a 3,700-foot oil containment boom around them.

“We have no evidence of a ruptured tank or fuel line leak,” Manion said in a post on his official Facebook page. “We believe it is residual fuel from submerged equipment/vehicles.”

He also noted that one fuel tank in the same area had collapsed. But he said that tank had been decommissioned several years ago and was empty.

Manion said the base’s drinking water is safe and is being tested frequently.

No one has been inside most of the flooded buildings, so no damage estimates are yet possible, said Drew Nystrom, a Wing spokesman.

How to stay safe while you clean up after the flood

As floodwaters recede, people are returning to their homes to assess the damage.

Although water is going down in most places, that doesn’t mean homes that have been flooded are safe. Floods can cause a multitude of problems, and the visible damage is only the tip of the iceberg.

“Stay out of the water,” warned Phil Rooney, a spokesman for the Douglas County Health Department. “Moving water is obviously dangerous, but standing water can be the source for many diseases. When in doubt about what you are doing, please call a certified professional.”

The list below is meant to help people stay safe as they return to their homes to clean up from the flood.

Safety at home:

» If you have any concerns about your safety, don’t enter the building. Ask for help first.

» Make sure you are current on your tetanus vaccination before doing cleanup.

» Once inside your house, look for cracks, buckled walls, loose material or shifting of the foundation.

» Call an electrician to turn off your electricity before entering any standing water if you can’t access the main power switch.

» Air out your house for at least 30 minutes.

» If your home was flooded, assume that it has mold and take all possible steps to treat that mold until proven otherwise.

» Check with your utility company regarding how to safely turn gas or electricity back on.

» Ensure that all electrical appliances are completely dry before using.

» Dispose of any medicines exposed to floodwaters.

» Beware of dangers hidden beneath standing water, such as broken glass, splintered wood, nails, sources of electricity, chemicals and animals.

» Give your lawn and shrubs time to recover from the flood.

» Monitor trees for signs of movement and immediately contact an arborist if you notice any change in large trees that could mean they’re damaged.

Some students head back to class after flood, while other school districts remain closed

Mother Nature has once again disrupted the 2018-19 school year for students across Nebraska.

The floodwaters have forced school districts to cancel classes and forced some students to evacuate their homes.

As the waters begin to recede, the districts and the Nebraska Department of Education are trying to figure out how the disruption will affect the school year’s remaining months.

On Sunday, the Douglas County West Community Schools canceled classes for the entire week. The majority of the district’s families were evacuated in the district of almost 980 students.

After closing “indefinitely,” the Cedar Bluffs Public Schools announced on Tuesday that school would be in session on Thursday.

The Norfolk Public Schools canceled classes on Thursday and then the district was on spring break. Students return to school on Wednesday.

In Niobrara, drinking water won’t be restored to the town until this weekend at the earliest, Jody Stark, the chairman of the Village Board, said Tuesday.

Until that happens, the local school can’t reopen, he said.

The huge cakes of ice piled throughout the west end of town are slowly melting, and there’s been talk of trying to erect a temporary bridge for foot traffic over the Niobrara River. That would allow students from west of town to reach the school.

The Bellevue Public Schools never closed because of floodwaters, but about 300 students and families have been directly affected by the flooding, said Amanda Oliver, a spokeswoman for the district.

Oliver said no there’s no damage to the district’s buildings. And members of the community have stepped up with donations and help for those who might need it.

It’s the second time Bellevue has been socked by weather in recent years.

In 2017 two tornadoes swept through the Bellevue area. The twisters damaged homes, downed hundreds of power lines and damaged two schools — one in Bellevue and one in Papillion — and caused significant damage to Offutt Air Force Base.

After that storm, people in Bellevue banded together, too, to clean up the mess left behind.

“It never ceases to amaze us how people come together,” Oliver said.

Most metro-area schools had taken six or seven snow days before the flooding.

The state requires 1,032 hours of instructional time for students in elementary school through eighth grade and 1,080 hours for high school students.

Right now the Nebraska Department of Education is stressing safety above all else and is telling districts that the department will work with them, said David Jespersen, department spokesman.

“The big question we have is how long will anybody be closed?” Jespersen said.

Like everyone else, the department is trying to grasp the scope of the damage and what that means for individual districts.

Nebraska Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt is reaching out to superintendents to see if they need assistance, Jespersen said.

The department is running through potential areas of concern like school lunches. Jespersen said lots of students could instantly qualify for free and reduced price lunches because they’ve lost their homes.

How to help those affected by the flooding

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