NIOBRARA, Neb. — Surrounded by thick slabs of ice stacked up to 10 feet high, Nathan Sucha stretched a measuring tape Sunday over a gaping hole in the concrete-block wall of the Country Cafe.
He delivered perhaps the only good news his mother, Laura, had heard since raging floodwaters, mixed with ice cakes as big as king-size beds, bulldozed through her restaurant on Thursday.
“Mom, I think we can fix it,” he said.
Laura Sucha wasn’t yet ready to buy it. She was still in shock over the ice-filled wall of water that rampaged through the west end of this town after the Thursday morning collapse of the Spencer Dam, 35 miles upstream on the Niobrara River.
The devastation in this recreation-based community of 370 was a testament to the pummeling power of Mother Nature when huge chunks of winter ice are propelled by an estimated 11-foot wall of water. In that way, it was a different scene than many others across flood-ravaged Nebraska.
“It just looked like the end of the world coming,” said Mayor Jody Stark, who saw the water coming on Thursday.
There wasn’t anything Sucha or her family could have done — they were trapped by floodwaters where they live in Verdigre, Nebraska, and unable to get to Niobrara.
A huge backhoe, driven by Sucha’s other son, Nolan, was needed to clear a path through the ice blocks so they could reach the restaurant.
“It’s total devastation. The ice just destroyed everything,” Sucha said as she waded in rubber boots through the mud and water left behind in a popular eatery she’s owned since 2015.
The chunks of ice, some up to 2 feet thick, acted like a roiling plow at Niobrara, where the Niobrara River dumps in the Missouri. They battered down walls and crumpled metal Quonset huts like cellophane bags. The town golf course looked like an Arctic ice field, with jumbled blocks of ice intermixed with wooden debris of buildings, tires and barrels, and cedar trees torn away from banks of the river.
The so-called “Mormon” bridge just west of town was blown away, tearing out the tourist-based town’s access to nearby Niobrara State Park and a cabin development along the Missouri called Lazy River Acres.
“The busy season starts in two weeks,” said Sucha, referring to waves of fishermen and turkey hunters. “And I’m not going to be open.”
The main focus in town on Sunday was restoring a supply of drinking water. The ice floes tore away at city water mains, which must now be repaired, then re-pressurized and sanitized. It could take two weeks, the mayor said.
It was also uncertain when school would reopen because access for about three-fourths of Niobara students is blocked by flood damage to the west and east.
The wall of ice also destroyed a gas station, a machine shop and a State Department of Transportation garage along the west side of town.
“There were actually two buildings there,” Stark said, pointing to a snowplow surrounded by blocks of ice. “They’re completely gone.”
Gov. Pete Ricketts, Sen. Ben Sasse and the local State Sen. Tim Gregert joined state emergency response officials in touring Niobrara and nearby Boyd County on Saturday.
Crews were still searching the Niobrara River on Sunday for the body of a man believed to have been swept away when the 91-year-old Spencer Dam collapsed. A walk-in cooler from a bar made out of hay bales that was destroyed below the dam was found about 4 miles downriver.
“You try to remember what it was like (below the dam) because there’s nothing there,” said Doug Fox, the emergency management director for five counties in northeast Nebraska.
The dam collapse washed away a portion of U.S. Highway 183 at the Niobrara River bridge south of Spencer, and ice chunks closed another bridge south of Butte. That, coupled with the loss of the bridge at Niobrara, left Boyd County virtually cut off from the rest of Nebraska, except for a small county bridge at Lynch and a long detour around the west end of the county.
It hearkened back to the days when many considered Boyd County a part of South Dakota before the state line between Nebraska and South Dakota was drawn in 1895.
“Maybe they’ll adopt us,” said Kyle Krotter, a member of the Spencer Village Board, of South Dakota.
Krotter had bigger worries on Sunday. The dam collapse wiped out a water main that ran beneath the Niobrara and supplied the Spencer and Lynch areas. It might be two to four weeks before a new main is bored beneath the river.
Meanwhile, Krotter and others were organizing shipments and donations of bottled water for drinking and water deliveries by tankers so people could flush toilets. (One shipment of bottled water arrived safely on Sunday.) Delivering water to livestock was also a concern.
Families were evacuated from 65 homes because of flooding from the Ponca Creek in Lynch earlier in the week. Deliveries of food and other goods to that community and Spencer must now divert through South Dakota, from the north. Krotter, who runs a hardware store/lumber yard, said he’s trying to figure out how to get a truckload of supplies that was left in Norfolk because bridges to Boyd County were out.
“The cleanup phase, the restoration phase, it’s going to take a long, long time,” said Gregert, a retired National Guard helicopter pilot who flew rescue missions after Hurricane Katrina.
Down at the Country Cafe, Sucha said there wasn’t much to salvage. The antique tables and chairs she had carefully restored were ruined. Other antiques were swept away in the storage shed.
“We have open-air seating now,” she said with dark humor, gazing out one of the ice-gouged holes in the side of the cafe.
Sucha said that when she and her partner, Diana Eckman, bought the cafe four years ago, they were told that they didn’t need flood insurance because the building sat outside the flood plain. A heavy rain and thick winter ice pushed by a wall of water from a collapsed dam changed that.
“We had one heck of a business,” she said. “But I don’t know what to do next. I absolutely don’t know.”