After a summer of flooding last year, the Missouri River has long since returned to its banks. But the flood's impact lingers.
Sand still buries flooded-out farmland. Urban homeowners continue to cope with foundations and futures. Riverside resorts are still digging out of muck and mold. Still others in the Midlands rode out the rising water, and some damaged areas see people moving back despite the risks.
Today we revisit some of the people affected to find how they are living with the flood's impact. Click on the links below to read their stories.
Flood damage by the numbers
A year after families began fleeing what would be historic Missouri River flooding, many have returned to reclaim their home ground.
But it will be years before life returns to normal. For some families, it may never.
Trying to quantify the lingering effects of all the damage in Nebraska and Iowa is difficult. Still, some data from various government agencies offer a glimpse:
Families who qualified for a total of $8.9 million in federal grants to make their homes habitable.
Homes destroyed (105 in Nebraska, 189 in Iowa), not including summer cabins.
Homes damaged, not including summer cabins.
Home and business owners and nonprofit agencies receiving low-interest federal loans totaling $9.9 million.
Acres of insured crops damaged.
Continuing Omaha Public Power District disconnections. From peak of 582 disconnections, 219 are reconnected or in process of being reconnected.
— Compiled by Nancy Gaarder
'It looks like a wasteland out here'
TEKAMAH, Neb. — Evidence of the disaster is everywhere.
Sprawling 30- to 40-foot holes scoured into farm fields. Sand dunes towering 15 feet where corn once grew.
Blinding, choking sandstorms erupting when the wind blows.
Water pooling in fields because it has nowhere to drain.
Pilings in an old river channel, exposed for the first time in more than a half-century on washed-out cropland.
The wellhead for a center-pivot irrigation system — once on solid ground — teetering on its casing, 30 feet above scoured land.
All along the Missouri River, reminders abound of the terrible toll that a historic flood inflicted last year on land and people from Montana to Missouri.
After a summer of flooding, the Missouri returned to its banks, but its legacy lingers.
Sand still buries flooded farmland. Urban homeowners continue to cope with shifting foundations and futures. Riverside resorts are still digging out of muck and mold. Flood-furloughed workers toil to turn the tide of red ink.
“It looks like a wasteland out here. It looks like something out of ‘Lawrence of Arabia,' ” said Jim Beaver of rural Blair, Neb., whose family-owned Beaver Farms operation east of Tekamah disappeared under a sea of sand left behind by floodwater.
Of the nearly 19,000 acres of Burt County's flooded farmland, an estimated 1,000 acres probably will never be farmed again because it's buried in sand, locals say.
A local farmer typically rents and farms 585 acres of Beaver Farms' riverside cropland. This year the farmer planted corn on only 180 acres. Blowing sand soon destroyed 30 acres of newly emerged plants.
“Sand just cuts it right off,” Beaver said. “I keep waiting for a phone call telling me that 30 more acres are wiped out.”
Sand covers 275 acres of Beaver cropland at an average depth of 3 feet. Beaver said hiring a contractor to remove the sand would cost an estimated $2.75 million.
“It's just way too cost-prohibitive for us to borrow money to spend $10,000 an acre to move sand off land that was worth maybe $6,000 an acre,” he said. “The cost is astronomical.”
Beaver Farms tried to enroll the sand-blanketed 275 acres into the federal Wetlands Reserve Program — which pays farmers to quit farming certain land and restore wetlands — but only 58 acres were accepted.
Beaver estimated as much as 80 percent of the farm will never go back into crop production.
“It's sitting there pretty much ruined. We may have to end up selling it,” he said. “Some people have told me we should turn it into a dune-buggy park or wind farm. We're kind of at a loss about what to do.”
'You learn that you're stronger than you think'
Debbi Henry is tired.
Tired of the boxes stacked inside the home she shares with her adult son near the Missouri in Council Bluffs.
“It's like being a hoarder,” she said.
After months of uncertainty over whether the nearby river levee would hold, a severe storm flash-flooded her neighborhood last August, sending rainwater washing into her basement living quarters. It ruined furniture, carpet and walls.
“It was like a nightmare you couldn't wake up from,” she said.
Not that she's gotten much sleep.
From late summer into winter, she battled with a contractor. Eventually she enlisted another son to restore her basement home.
In the meantime Henry, already disabled with a bad back, has been sleeping on the couch upstairs in the living room.
The roughly $5,000 in federal aid won't replace all that she's lost, she said. But at least she still has her home.
The house next door sits abandoned, grass nearly knee-high. All around the neighborhood, “for sale” signs dot lawns.
Some houses have been jacked up to build new foundations, said Steve Carmichael, the city's chief building inspector.
Three nearby homes have been razed. Only one has been rebuilt — its owner had flood insurance. Another owner declared bankruptcy. The third still doesn't know what to do.
An additional 39 Bluffs homes that sit next to the river, outside the protection of a levee, also are being razed.
The city has worked successfully with families on the safe side of the levee to save homes that initially appeared uninhabitable after foundations collapsed.
“I've seen a high degree of resiliency,” Carmichael said. “It's really phenomenal.”
Among the many lessons of the flood, Henry emphasized one:
“You learn that you're stronger than you think. Every day you get up and see what the day brings.”
'We would have had to completely start again'
Henry and Liane Brainard decided they were too old to fight or rebuild.
The semi-retired couple lived for 22 years on the riverbank just east of Lake Manawa in Council Bluffs.
Then floodwater swamped their two-trailer complex before it could be pulled out of harm's way.
Henry Brainard, 70, said that when the city decided not to provide power to the six cabins along Emil Lane, he and his wife moved to a two-bedroom apartment overlooking a church parking lot.
He said goodbye to his huge garden of string beans and sweet corn, towing his grandkids behind a tri-hulled pontoon boat and watching the river flow by.
“We would have had to completely start again,” he said. “I'm not a crippled old man, but I'm not as strong as I used to be.”
'All of a sudden, I was out of work'
The flood pushed LeAnne Lewis to cut a new career path.
The manager of the Americas Best Value Inn & Suites just off Interstate 29 at Iowa Highway 2 near Percival was among about a dozen employees laid off when Missouri floodwater forced the motel to close last June.
Even with unemployment benefits and the pay from working up a few hours a week at another motel, Lewis found that her family budget was reduced by about a third.
“All of a sudden I was out of work, and it was very scary,” Lewis said. “We didn't know how long we'd be off, and there were rumors that the roads would be shut down for two years.”
Lewis, 37, was one of only three or four employees who returned to the Percival motel when it reopened Jan. 2. The others had found work elsewhere.
Now Lewis is looking to the future.
She has always wanted to be a nurse, so she is taking prerequisite courses online and plans to begin nursing studies next year at Iowa Western Community College.
“I made the decision,” she said, “that I never wanted to be at the mercy of something like a flood again.”
'Nobody knows what to do with all the sand'
Kent Heaton's head hits the ceiling when he walks through his house near Fort Calhoun, Neb.
That's because the 5-foot-11 corporate pilot is walking on about 2 feet of sand.
The flooding Missouri didn't take long last June to creep a mile west and swamp Heaton's acreage, down the bluff from Fort Atkinson State Historical Park.
Floodwater blew out house windows and tore tin siding from farm buildings.
And it filled Heaton's house with sand.
“It'll have to be torn down or gutted and used as a cabin,” he said. “Or maybe the Fire Department will burn it.”
Heaton's flood insurance claim was recently rejected.
The acreage used to be part of a 440-acre farm Heaton's parents leased from the state. Sand covers the entire landscape now.
“Nobody knows what to do with all the sand,” he said.
Heaton plans to buy a loader and start pushing his acreage sand into piles and cover it or erect a snow fence to keep it from drifting back over the property.
“Maybe I can sell it to a construction company as fill.”
'It's all going to be gone one of these days'
Merry Jo Neeman lived most of her 72 years in Bartlett, Iowa, about a half-mile from the Missouri.
Her parents were raised in town. A grandmother was born nearby. Growing up in Bartlett was like being part of a big extended family.
“I wouldn't be afraid to go to anyone in town and say ‘Hey, I need something,' ” Neeman said.
Now the house she and her husband built in 1970 is uninhabitable. Mud cakes the porch. Most nearby homes and businesses still show water lines at least 3 feet high.
Fewer than half of the 50 residents in this Fremont County town have returned.
“It's sad. It's all going to be gone one of these days,” Neeman said, pulling a tissue from a pocket to wipe away tears.
The Neemans' house might be salvageable, but the couple aren't in condition physically to rebuild. They moved to an apartment in Glenwood, Iowa. Their son, Bill Hill, now owns the flood-damaged home.
Jean Curtis, who lived for about 47 of her 66 years just north of Bartlett, said cost and the risk of more flooding keep her from rebuilding.
She used to sit on her back porch, coffee in hand, and watch the sun rise over the Loess Hills.
Four days before Memorial Day, she went back to her former home. She walked in to find that thieves had stolen tools, the copper pipes beneath the kitchen sink, an air conditioning unit and light fixtures.
Wires hung from open holes, and she started crying.
Curtis has used the $20,000 in funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to take out a loan on a house 32 miles away, in Shenandoah, where her children and grandchildren live.
She is on schedule to repay her mortgage by the time she's 96.
'I don't have much faith in the corps'
TEKAMAH, Neb. — Wally and Bev Lydick of rural Tekamah consider themselves among the flood's fortunate.
Their house stayed dry and they stayed put, though about a dozen neighbors fled.
The Lydicks lost a year's worth of corn and soybean production to flooding on 360 of their 1,000 acres of farm ground, along with 63 acres of pine, spruce and walnut riverine habitat.
They strongly support legislation proposed by U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, to require the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to permanently lower its three big reservoirs to create room for the magnitude of water that swept down the basin last summer. Reps. Jeff Fortenberry and Lee Terry, both R-Neb., are co-sponsors on King's bill.
“If Fortenberry and King want to be remembered, this is how,” Bev Lydick said. “They can change the Corps of Engineers' Master Manual.”
The Master Manual is the corps' guidebook for managing the river to reduce the risk of flooding, and other purposes.
The Lydicks said Missouri flood flows during 2010 should have been reason enough to release more water from reservoirs during the winter of 2010-11, as a precaution against another summer of high water.
They worry that Congress will neglect the bill as flood memories fade. “I don't have much faith in the corps,” Wally Lydick said.
Lydick Farms lies on a big knob of land poking toward Iowa. The Missouri makes a lazy bend around the knob, loosely bordering Lydick land on the north, east and south.
Wally Lydick's family has farmed this bottomland since before Nebraska was a state. He recalls the sound of dynamite and pile drivers in the 1950s, when Army engineers created the river's nearby navigation channel.
“We love water,” Bev Lydick said, “when it's where it's supposed to be.”
Floodwater didn't rush across their farm. It oozed its way up fields of newly planted corn and soybeans, eventually yellowing and submerging young plants.
The Lydicks' neighbors started moving out of their farm homes over Memorial Day weekend 2011. Farmers launched around-the-clock convoys, ferrying cattle and stored corn to dry land.
Harbor 671, a housing development of about 50 dwellings upstream from the Lydicks, became a ghost town.
A year ago today, the Lydicks completed a ring of sandbags piled 2 or 3 feet high around their home.
They became an island, population 2, plus Gus the dog, assorted deer, raccoons, skunks and seemingly millions of toads.
Wally Lydick paddled a canoe across a submerged cornfield just steps from his house.
Lydick's great-grandfather Hiram Lydick came to the Nebraska Territory from Ohio and started the farm in 1857. Hiram's son Walter built the first house at the current site in about 1900, apparently selecting the flood plain's highest ground.
“Grandpa must have known,” Bev Lydick said of his bet on a high piece of bottomland.
Like the farmstead, a short stretch of the graveled county road along the farmstead remained dry.
“I'd walk a couple hundred yards back and forth, like a caged animal,” Bev Lydick said. “All the neighbors were gone. It was eerie. There was truly no traffic, no sound” — until an airboat roared across a flooded cornfield one morning.
For about two months they parked their cars nearly a mile away and drove a John Deere 8300 tractor through 18-inch-deep floodwater to and from the house.
“It was surreal. It was a bad dream. It was an awful time,” Bev Lydick said. “We just don't want it to happen again.”
'This is our life. We're river rats'
NIOBRARA, Neb. — Robin and Bill Salmen traded the rat race for the lives of river rats nearly two decades ago.
They bought a cabin along the sandy Missouri River.
Then they went into business, buying a funky tavern and bait shop, the Blue Moon Resort, with friends Julie and Ron Fettig in 1999.
“It's a lot different lifestyle than the fast-paced city life,” said Robin Salmen. “People come up here to get away from it. We live it.”
Their dream was nearly washed away when the Missouri reclaimed the flat bottomlands west of Niobrara State Park.
Five feet of water swamped their $250,000 modular home in Lazy River Acres. Water was 3 feet deep in the Blue Moon.
But the Salmens are moving back to the river, back to a community they love.
“We got a new bank loan and went back in debt,” Salmen said. “This is our life. We're river rats.”
Up and down the river, flooded cabins and homes are being rebuilt or replaced, with few exceptions.
“A few people decided to sell out, but within a snap of a finger, their place is sold,” Salmen said.
Lazy River Acres, a summer-cabin development of about 175 mostly trailers and modular homes, was one of the hardest-hit areas. Only a couple of dwellings didn't get water inside.
At least 78 units have been demolished and replaced, said Liz Doerr, the Knox County zoning and flood plain administrator.
Doerr said the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency approached county officials about buying out the development, but the county rejected the idea.
“Most everyone wanted to come back,” Doerr said.
Scores of friends and neighbors helped rebuild the Blue Moon. About 350 of them showed up for a February fundraiser for Ron Fettig, who discovered he had lung cancer last fall while digging through the moldy, rotting remains of the tavern.
Things are looking up now. Fettig said his last checkup showed he was cancer-free.
The Blue Moon reopened Nov. 18. A painting of blue waves marks the floodwater level.
“It's probably the best winter we've ever had,” Fettig said. “It was a nice winter, and we knew there were going to be a lot of construction people up here. Heck, they need a place to drink and eat.”
Contact the writer: 402-473-9584, email@example.com
Before and after: Areas affected by flooding in 2011
A look back at 2011 flood damage
More 2011 flood photos, coverage
Click here for more flood coverage and photos.