NET Reporters Who Covered Nebraska Flooding Talk Damage, Recovery

Dec. 23, 2019, 6:45 a.m. ·

Flood damage in northeast Nebraska. (Photo courtesy of Office of Governor)

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This year, Nebraska saw the largest natural disaster in state history: floods that impacted homes, farmland, and vital infrastructure. Now, nine months later, NET Radio host Jack Williams sits down with reporters Allison Mollenkamp and Bill Kelly to look back on the floods and how Nebraskans worked together to start down the long road to recovery.

Jack Williams: In March, flood waters crashed through Nebraska, and the state has spent most of the time since recovering. One of the most dramatic impacts was to Nebraska’s agriculture sector. Allison, what effects did you see for farmers and ranchers?

Allison Mollenkamp: Farmers did lose a lot, things like infrastructure and some of them were not able to plant their crops this summer. Others lost huge amounts of stored grain from last year and those ag losses are estimated at about $1 billion. There are federal government programs through places like the USDA to help those folks. Some took prevented planting or crop insurance and there are farmers who had water on their land all summer. The river just stayed very high for much of the year. We are waiting for that water to go down and it should as we get into winter. Other farmers had silt deposits on their land and that can take a long time to clear and get drainage correct. One farmer that I met was Scott Olson. He and his family farm 3000 acres of corn and soybeans near Tekamah.

“Right now, I have two feet of water coming up on the river. I will not be able to get on that piece of ground,” Olson said. “So do I fix it and try to plant it not knowing whether I’ve got more water coming or not, because if I get more water coming on there, it will undo everything I did plus wipe-out all the crop I just put on there.”

Williams: The flood waters also impacted non-ag areas, and we saw dramatic images of bridges and roads torn up by flooding. Bill, what was the real scope of that damage?

Bill Kelly: The Department of Transportation estimated about $180 million in road damage, but for an example, just for one project there was the replacement of two bridges outside of Niobrara, up in Knox County, that cross the Niobrara River. They were both taken-out by the breaching of the Spencer Dam. The cost of the two temporary bridges and the ultimate cost of that is going to be $44 million. There have been a lot of challenges in that rebuilding effort. Farther upstream, Highway 281, the stretch was taken out by the collapse of Spencer Dam. Also, the high water in September forced some emergency reinforcement of what they call the “shoofly”, the temporary bridge around and everyone hopes that’s not a warning sign of the frozen rivers coming back to life next spring that those temporary bridges could be damaged again.

Mollenkamp: The scale of this damage really is absolutely massive. DOT has been hard at work to fix that damage and they held several open houses in June to inform local communities about what work is going on in their communities and at one of those meetings I met Mark Traynowicz. He’s the Nebraska state bridge engineer.

“On a typical flood, we may have one or two state highway bridges that could get damaged. We’ve got six bridges that are completely washed-out,” Traynowicz said. “We’ve got seven others that have major repairs and then then rest have more minor repairs. I don’t think people realize it’s such a significant event as it is.”

Mollenkamp: Of course many communities are also dealing with levee damage, some of which won’t be repaired well into next year.

Kelly: The levee wasn’t only just along the rivers themselves. Levee damage was a major issue for the Loup Public Power District where they have their hydro-electric plants along a canal that heads past Genoa in central Nebraska. The water diversion structure along the Loup River ended up being breached as well and the canal feeding those hydro-electric plants ended up flooding. Huge amounts of farmland losses, there were five breaches. They have temporarily replaced those. At least the farmland isn’t being flooded. But that again, that’s a $20 million project that ended up affecting not only the people in the area, but as well the electric power customers for Loup Public Power.

Williams: Flooding lasted days or months in different parts of the state, but we saw recovery and response begin almost immediately. Allison, did that look like?

Mollenkamp: There was so much destruction, it really was devastating to see all of the people that were impacted by these floods, but it was also really inspiring to see people come together. We saw farmers and ranchers donate hay for livestock in the affected areas. And I met volunteers from all over the country who dropped everything to come to Nebraska to help people and we saw people within Nebraska donate their time and money to help their neighbors. One of the coolest examples I saw was in Fremont. People donated everything from cleaning supplies to food to fresh clothes and they filled their city auditorium with all these donations.

Williams: In the time we have left, I’d love to hear one thing that’s stuck with each of you after all your flood coverage. Bill?

Kelly: I think what really has surprised me is it took so long for Nebraskans, even those who were in the middle of this event, to really get a handle on the scope of what occurred in our state. People may have known that their individual town was flooded and impacted, but it took a few weeks or even a few months for people to realize that other parts of the state were impacted just as severely. There was a lot of concern that the national media wasn’t paying attention to us. At the same time, there were people even in Nebraska that had no idea how this affected people’s lives and to the extent in affected people’s lives.

Mollenkamp: And for me, this year's floods have definitely been all-consuming. When we think of 2019 and the future, I think this is definitely what we'll think of. But, there's also a fear that it could happen all over again next year. I talked to an expert at the National Weather Service who says that we have almost completely saturated soil. The river flows are high and odds are predicting more than usual precipitation this winter.