The weather this winter has been historic, to say the least! March 13th the forecast was warning the Midwest to brace for a “bomb cyclone” – a storm that has very low pressure within a 24-hour span. When the pressure drops, storms intensify and spin counterclockwise, which forms a cyclone, resulting in extreme wind and heavy rain or snowfall. It’s rare for the Plains region to get a bomb cyclone, which is basically a winter hurricane, but they got one.
The storm’s center went right over Nebraska and Iowa. On March 14th the region had rain that turned to snow with hurricane-force winds that caused huge flooding. The worst of the damage was caused when the Spencer Dam, on the Niobrara River, was compromised at approximately 5:30 AM, sending a wall of water and ice rushing to the low-lying areas below, wiping out all man-made structures. The river was still frozen, and when the flood waters came up under the ice, the pressure was too much for the 90-year-old dam to hold it back.
Amazingly, one man was rescued from his home by boat and a rope, while another man, Kenny Angel, who owned Angel’s Straw Bale Saloon and resided in a house near the saloon, is believed to be lost to the flood. James Wilke, a farmer in Platte County, perished trying to help a person trapped in their vehicle. I think the fact that there wasn’t more loss of life in this tragedy is pretty amazing!
The list of damage is extensive. The loss of livestock is huge, and they are still finding carcasses as the water recedes. Some fields that had good dirt were worth $15,000 an acre, but now, covered in deep debris and sand, some may never be tillable again. The work to clear them back down to the rich black dirt may be too costly. Bridges and roads that have been destroyed have caused detours and it will take years to get things back to the way they were the day before the storm – and for many, it will never be the way it was ever again.
Dozens of towns were submerged in water or some became islands. If you have ever traveled across Nebraska, you know it is flat, and the rivers you cross going east and west on I-80 look like you could walk across them. The railroads had 67 bridges that were damaged, thus affecting rail traffic, as well. I want to thank Wally Seamann of Amelia, NE for helping with names of people to talk to and help get pictures. Wally is a rancher and a trucker, so he understands how both sides are affected by this event.
I also talked with Sammy Kaven of Fremont, NE, which is a city that was marooned by the Elkhorn River on one side and the Platte River cut-off access roaring into it on the other. The town was cut-off from the rest of Nebraska by the floodwaters, but folks came together to sandbag and help each other in many ways. Some opened their homes, Hy-Vee Deli cooks worked around the clock to feed the stranded, cots were air-lifted in and filled the local gym, and a retired Spanish teacher was translating for those who needed it. This entire state is a place where neighbors help neighbors.
Sammy told me about an air boat business along the river, on a beach the size of two football fields, that was washed away. The channel of the river was changed with the flood, and 600 houses had to be inspected by a building inspector, an electrical inspector and a heating inspector before people were allowed to return home. Color-coded stickers were used – green means you are good to return, yellow means work had to be done before you could return, and red means you can’t return, and that the property will have to be torn down.
Thousands of bushels of grain and countless bales of hay have been ruined by the water and can’t be used for food or fuel. A cow can eat 24 pounds of hay each day, so a 1,300-lb. bale can feed about 50 cattle for one day. The need for feed for these animals is huge. To help with this, there has been hay trucked in from more than 24 other states.
I chatted with Matt Schaller who helped found the Ag Community Relief organization after the 2017 Oklahoma fires. This Michigan-based non-profit sent trucks with hay to help in Nebraska. To find ways to help, check out their “Farmers Helping Farmers” website at www.agcommunityrelief.com. Farmers and people in all the areas hit by this storm (not just Nebraska) are in need of everything. Some have lost their homes, farms and businesses – everything that they’ve worked for all their lives. For some, the rebuilding process could take years, and for others, the loss may be permanent and unfixable.
Most of the water has receded, leaving a massive amount of clean-up, before any rebuilding can even begin. But, rebuild they will! For many there was no insurance, and that will make rebuilding difficult, if not impossible, but with communities banding together and donations from people who care enough to help, anything is possible. Any help these people get is appreciated.
Infrastructure and railroads need some serious repair, too, where bridges and roads were completely washed away. Homes and businesses that were flooded need to be repaired or torn down and completely replaced. Farms will need thousands of miles of fence rebuilt, barns and grain bins replaced. I don’t know if people realize how much this disaster will affect the rest of the country. The loss of livestock will affect the price we pay for meat; the ethanol plants that were down will affect the price of gas; the grain that was lost and the land that will not be able to be planted this year (and some never again) will affect the price of food; and the railroad and road damage will affect the transportation of goods, in general, along with the price.
Churches and local Farm Bureaus are good places to give, knowing that they will make sure the donations are used locally. Know before you donate, because, sadly, some people will try to make money at the expense of people who have just lost everything. All this being said, I think the most amazing thing about all this devastation is the people who were affected and the people who are coming to help them – they will help each other get through this “once in a lifetime” tragedy, for sure.
On March 21st, there was a dinner in Columbus, NE in Schuyler’s historic Oak Ballroom were a group of people from all walks of life (moms, dads, kids, businessmen, law enforcement officers, first responders, government officials and even football players) came together with a common thread – they were all Nebraskans. Outside the building, along Higgins Drive, was a sign that said Nebraska Strong. This powerful yet simple phrase – “Nebraska Strong” – says it all. Sammy Kaven of Fremont, NE (previously mentioned) prints “Nebraska Strong” stickers and then donates the proceeds to charities that are helping people locally.
Pictures tell this story and I would like to thank Keri Engelhaupt, the folks at Ag Community Relief, and everyone else who has shared photos. There is one picture that I found on a Facebook page that Keri told me to check out (Nebraska Through the Lens) that Deana Anderson Tiedtke took of a heart-shaped piece of barbed wire. Turns out a lady from Arizona saw this photo and it inspired her to make her own version of Nebraska Strong shirts! The beauty here in Nebraska has been altered, but it hasn’t been taken away, thanks to the people, who are Nebraska Strong!