Historic Flooding in Missouri, Nebraska and Iowa Kills 3, Causes Dozens of Levee Breaches, Forces Evacuations, and Damages Thousands of Homes
March 19, 2019
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says 200 miles of levees have been compromised in four states.
- Three people have been killed in the historic flooding; two others are missing.
- The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says 200 miles of levees have been compromised in four states.
- Vice President Mike Pence is expected to travel to Nebraska Tuesday to survey the damage.
- Historic flood levels have been recorded at 42 locations in six states.
- Offutt Air Force Base, home to U.S. Strategic Command, is fighting floodwaters.
Rivers continued to rise across the Midwest Tuesday, continuing the days-long siege of flooding that has inundated thousands of homes, forced countless evacuations and caused levee breaches in at least a dozen locations.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers told the Associated Press that 200 miles of levees have been topped or breached across Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri and Kansas.
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, who said Sunday that every levee from Council Bluffs to the Missouri border is breached, surveyed the devastation on Monday.
"I wasn't prepared for the level of damage that I saw," Reynolds said, according to the Des Moines Register. "These are farmers that have been farming for a long time. Generations of farms. The attitude is, well, the water's going to go down... and we're going to get it fixed, but I think when I look at the level and the long haul, it's tough."
In Glenwood, Iowa, Mayor Ron Kohn said farms west of the city are likely done for the year.
"That's all going to be gone until next year, I'm sure," he told the Register. "Rice is about all they could grow out there now."
The story is the same in communities along nearly every river in the Midwest.
"The levees are busted and we aren't even into the wet season when the rivers run high," Tom Bullock, the emergency management director for Missouri's Holt County, told AP.
Heavy rain and snowmelt in the region have led to the extensive flooding that has reached historic levels in 42 locations and killed three people.
Two people from Columbus, Nebraska, died last week: a woman trapped in her home by floodwaters and a farmer attempting a rescue in high water, according to the Platte County Sheriff's Office. A Norfolk, Nebraska, man died and two others were injured when they drove around a flood barrier in Fremont County, Iowa, on Friday and were swept away, according to the Fremont County Sheriff's Office.
Two other men are missing and presumed dead in Nebraska.
Vice President Mike Pence said he will travel to Nebraska on Tuesday to survey the damage and visit with local leaders.
Farmers in Nebraska and Iowa say they are worried about the state of their crops, the AP reports.
Steve Nelson, president of the Nebraska Farm Bureau, said farm and ranch losses to the flooding could top $1 billion in the state.
He estimates $400 million in crop losses because of crops that will be planted late, if at all, and $500 million in livestock losses.
"That gets us close to a billion dollars. I would not be surprised to see the lost agriculture numbers go over a billion dollars," he told the Omaha World-Herald.
The Nebraska Emergency Management Agency says private and public losses from the flooding is currently reported at more than $265 million.
On Monday evening, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem urged residents along the Big Sioux River to begin preparing for flooding.
“Flooding is not a matter of if, but when,” said Noem in a press release. “These levels will impact homes, businesses, roads and farms. It’s important that those living in the Big Sioux River Valley start their flooding preparations now.”
Shortly after noon Monday CDT, Atchison County Emergency Management urged residents of Watson, Missouri, to evacuate when the Missouri State Highway Patrol reported that water was washing over the Nishnabotna River and and High Creek levees. The county also said levees on the Missouri River west of Watson had two breaches.
Monday morning, Tom Bullock, Emergency Management director for Holt County, Missouri, said many homes there were filled with 6 to 7 feet of water. A levee south of Fortescue, Missouri, was overtopped about 7:30 Sunday night. Several other levees along the Missouri side of the river were breached, too.
Interstate 29 was underwater in places and was closed from just north of St. Joseph, Missouri, to Loveland, Nebraska.
Interstate 29 near the Iowa State line. pic.twitter.com/pZlhrhN3wR— MSHP Troop H (@MSHPTrooperH) March 18, 2019
The entire town of Pacific Junction, Iowa, was ordered to evacuate late Sunday because of two levee failures and a confirmed levee breach on the Missouri River, the Mills County Sheriff's Office reported. Gas and electricity were cut off to the town.
Mayor Andy Young said most residents in the town of 480 don't have flood insurance. "We are going to have to rely on the federal government for assistance. Not sure what that will mean," Young told the Omaha World-Herald. "This is going to be tough, with all the damage to homes."
On the other side of the river across from Pacific Junction, Offutt Air Force Base was restricted to "mission essential personnel" on Sunday after about a third of the base was cut off by rising floodwaters. Thirty buildings at the base south of Omaha have been inundated with as much as 8 feet of water, Tech. Sgt. Rachelle Blake, a 55th Wing spokeswoman, told the World-Herald.
Nevertheless, normal personnel operations were expected to resume Tuesday, the base's Twitter account announced.
55th Wing Commander, Facebook
Thurman, Iowa, began evacuations about 7:30 a.m. Sunday EDT as fast moving water approached the town in the southwest corner of the state. The National Weather Service said the flooding was likely the result of levee breaches on the Missouri River. Areas of other Iowa towns had already evacuated, including Hamburg, Percival, McPaul and Bartlett.
Shortly after 3 p.m. Sunday, water topped a levee west of Hamburg as residents filled sandbags to build a retaining wall.
Seventy-year-old Lana Brandt has lived in Hamburg all her life. She said people from as far away as Omaha came to help with the sandbags.
“We’re an older community, so many of us can’t do sandbags anymore,” Brandt told the World-Herald. “We count on people helping us.”
“We all take care of each other. We were all rubbing elbows, bagging sand together, helping each other out,” said Taylor Parton, 67, who has lived in Hamburg for three years.
— Tevin Wooten (@TevinWooten) March 18, 2019
In St. Joseph, Missouri, where the river is expected to crest at 30.1 feet this week, city officials asked volunteers to help fill sandbags. The goal, city spokesperson Mary Robinson told WDAF-TV, was to have 150,000 sandbags by Tuesday to add a 2-foot wall to the levee.
Farther south, the Missouri is expected to crest above major flood stage in Atchison, Kansas, and just below that stage in Leavenworth, according to the National Weather Service. In Kansas City, where banks and levees are higher, it’s projected to crest at 32.4 feet, which is just above minor flood stage.
Health officials in Missouri are warning that the floodwaters could contain untreated sewage and hazardous chemicals and debris.
“It is vital that everyone working near floodwaters realizes the risks that exist,” Randall Williams, Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services director, told the Kansas City Star on Monday. “Just as driving in moving or standing water is dangerous, wading in floodwaters or exposure while recovering from a flood can pose health risks.”
Douglas County West Community Schools in Valley, Nebraska, are closed for the week, the World-Herald reports. Many families in the district, which has about 980 students, have been evacuated from their homes, Superintendent Melissa Poloncic said.
Earlier in the weekend, flooding from the Elkhorn and Platte rivers turned Nebraska's sixth largest city into "an island." Fremont, Nebraska, which lies about 40 miles northwest of Omaha and is home to more than 26,000 residents, was cut off from the rest of the state Saturday when two levees were breached northwest of the city. Volunteers have spent much the weekend filling sandbags and lining them up to block water, the Fremont Tribune reported.
"There are no easy fixes to any of this," said Fremont City Administrator Brian Newton. "We need Mother Nature to decrease the height of the river."
By Monday evening, Highway 36 into Fremont was reopened, giving residents a chance to return and survey the damage.
Volunteers also helped set up shelters; Spanish teachers translated for those who didn't speak English, and cooks at the Hy-Vee grocery store worked with the American Red Cross to feed stranded people, the Omaha World-Herald reported. A pilot from Lincoln, Nebraska, landed at Freemont's airport to give three meat cutters at the WholeStone Farms plant a lift home, where they each had children waiting.
“As long as we can help other people, that’s what we’re doing,” Adam Hunnel said.
The rising Missouri River in the town of Brownville, Nebraska, meant officials were prepared to shut down the Cooper Nuclear Power Station if needed, according to a press release.
Mike Wight, public information officer for the Nebraska Emergency Management Office, told weather.com there is "concern" for the nuclear plant but emphasized that it "is perfectly safe."
"We don't expect any safety issues but we do expect they will get flooding around them and if it gets too far they will shut it down," Wight said, adding that it will not be an "issue with power supply" because they can get power from other sources within the grid.
On Monday, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said it has inspectors at the plant and it continues to operate at full power.
On Saturday, Black Hawk helicopters were dropping 1.5-ton sandbags to protect wells that serve the city of Lincoln, home to more than 284,000 people. The wells are located on an island in the rising Platte River.
— Maj Gen Daryl Bohac (@NETAGBohac) March 16, 2019
After surveying the extensive flooding from the air, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts said in a Friday press conference that it was the "most widespread flooding damage we've had in the last half-century."
"Even when we were away from the water system, we saw that the fields were very saturated," he added.
The U.S. Coast Guard closed all traffic Friday on a 70-mile stretch of the Missouri River from 50 miles south of Omaha, Nebraska, to St. Joseph, Missouri.
And in Freeport, Illinois, the town's 25,000 residents were preparing for what could be the worst flooding in 50 years. If the worst-case scenario occurs, the Pecatonica River will swell to the highest level ever recorded, Freeport City Manager Lowell Crow told the AP.
Three Dead, Others Missing
A Nebraska farmer identified as James Wilke, 50, was killed Thursday after the tractor he was using to attempt to rescue a stranded motorist was carried away by floodwaters, the Omaha World-Herald reported. The incident occurred at Shell Creek near Columbus in eastern Nebraska.
Betty Hamernik, 80, also of rural Columbus, died after rescuers weren't unable to reach her home where she was trapped Thursday because of fast current, high waves and gusting winds, according to released information from the Platte County Sheriff's Office. An Air National Guard helicopter also was unable to save her. The next day, a rescue crew found her body in the home, but they were unable to remove it. A sheriff’s office dive team retrieved her body on Saturday.
A 55-year-old Nebraska man died Friday night after being trapped by flooding in Riverton, Iowa, the Des Moines Register reported. Aleido Rojas Galan of Norfolk, Nebraska, and two other men were in a car that was swept away by floodwaters. All three were rescued, but Galan died on his way to the hospital, the Fremont County Sheriff's office said. The other two men were recovering in an Omaha hospital.
Also in Nebraska, two other men are missing and presumed dead. Scott E. Goodman, 30, of Norfolk was seen at 4 a.m. Thursday on top of his car near a levee that failed. It was reported that he was later seen being carried away by a surge of water, according to the Norfolk Daily News.
A second, unidentified man might have been swept away Thursday when the Spencer Dam collapsed on the Niobrara River.
When the dam failed, it caused a large ice floe to jam a hole in a small electrical plant, where employees were working. No other injuries were reported. The failure also forced the evacuation of dozens of residents along the river.
Chunks of ice from the Niobrara, some up to 2 feet thick, crashed into a gas station, a storage facility and a garage in the town of Niobrara, Nebraska, the World-Herald reported. The ice was left in piles 6 to 10 feet high around town.
“It’s total devastation. The ice just destroyed everything,” said Laura Sucha, who lost the Country Cafe restaurant she has owned since 2015.
Also along the Niobrara, the three bridges that connected Boyd County to the rest of Nebraska were closed. The bridges south of Butte and Spencer were closed because of the flooding, and the so-called “Mormon” bridge in Niobrara washed away.
Surreal aerial photo of damaged Spencer Dam on northern Nebraska's Niobrara River (Credit: J. Angel HT @fredmknapp). Downstream near the town of Verdel, a river gauge measured a rise of 10.71 feet in 2.5 hours before the instrument stopped reporting (damaged? swept away?) pic.twitter.com/2ltV5sXFbc— Jonathan Erdman (@wxjerdman) March 16, 2019
Photos from friends of #Niobrara #Nebraska and some of the damage. Second water surge predicted. Spencer dam gone, Mormon bridge gone, old railroad bridge gone, Vic's service gone, Neilson's destroyed, cafe destroyed, State yard buildings gone. And that's just one town. pic.twitter.com/U6A0KEORPP— Sarah Kate (@thosewholove) March 15, 2019
So far, 42 locations in six states across the Midwest have set new flood crests, said weather.com senior meteorologist Jon Erdman, noting that the flooding that is a result of recent heavy rains and snowmelt will continue into the week.
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