Bridge reopening brings relief to rural town

Pender Village Board Chairman Bill Newton said the reopening of the Nebraska Highway 94 bridge, which had been closed since the March flooding, is a relief for residents who now have a direct route into town.

PENDER, Neb. (AP) — It's easy to see Bill Newton's point when he talks about the reopening of a bridge on one of the main routes into and out of Pender, Nebraska, and whether it's helped things return to normal here.

"What do you mean 'back to normal'? What is 'normal'?" asked Newton, chairman of Pender's village board.

It's a point well-taken, considering that a gravel road to the west of his diesel repair shop north of town has a barricade across it, still closed because of damage caused by flooding in March. Flooding in back-to-back years has damaged sewer lines and the town's storm sewer system, according to the Sioux City Journal. At least half a dozen homeowners continue to deal with flood-damaged homes.

"Normal" in Pender has taken on a different meaning, and a prominent reminder of that stood on the east edge of town all spring and summer.

When a bomb cyclone hit the region March 14, water from heavy rains and rapidly melting snow, along with ice and debris, filled Logan Creek. As all that water inundated Pender, the rushing floodwaters damaged the west approach and undercut supports beneath the bridge on Nebraska Highway 94, the main route into and out of town from the east.

The bridge was closed for repairs for nearly seven months, forcing motorists to drive an extra seven or eight miles out of their way to get to and from town.

When it reopened Oct. 12, many local residents were relieved. After months of detouring through the country on gravel roads, they could once again take a more direct route.

"If you were living on the east side of that bridge, I'm sure it felt like a year," Newton said.

The hardship was compounded in September, when the Nebraska Department of Transportation closed a segment of Nebraska Highway 35 to the north for unexpected repairs. With that route, a popular alternative to get to Sioux City and points north and east of Pender, closed, motorists had to take even more detours, drive more gravel roads.

So maybe "normal" is a hard term to define in Pender right now, but seeing the bridge reopen brought back a sense of normalcy.

"We're very happy that they finally got it reopened sowe can get back to business as normal," said Scott Darling, owner of Pender Grain, a family-owned and operated business that depends heavily on transportation. All spring and summer, drivers of Pender Grain trucks and fertilizer equipment shared narrow gravel roads with all the extra traffic. With harvest now underway, trucks full of soybeans and corn coming from the east will have a quicker, easier drive to the grain elevator.

"People are now able to come to town with a smile," Darling said.

There were smiles all around when a small gathering of representatives from Pender, Thurston County and the Omaha Tribe removed the barricades that had stood across the highway, making travel easier not only for the general public, but for emergency responders, who saw precious minutes added to response times as they were forced to drive alternate routes around the closed bridge.

"It relieves a lot of pressure on the county," Newton said of the bridge's reopening.

It's one more step toward recovery, a reminder of the damage done, the progress that's been made and the work still to be completed.

The bridge may be open, but contractors continue work to stabilize the creek banks beneath it. Next summer, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must replace tons of dirt that floodwaters washed away between Pender's protective flood wall and the creek channel. Newton said the village board hopes it can secure grants or other federal emergency funds to pay Pender's share, which could reach an estimated $250,000.

Thurston County also continues to repair flood-damaged roads and bridges closed since March.

Newton's not going to complain. Other counties, cities and towns saw more damage than Pender and Thurston County, he said.

"It's going to take four to five years for some of these counties and cities to get back to previous levels," he said.

He didn't say "get back to normal," but with the Nebraska 94 bridge open once again, it feels more like the area is at least headed in that direction.

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