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Omaha-area rivers are more dangerous than they seem, authorities say

The first sign of trouble on the Elkhorn River was the sound of a father yelling for help.

His kayak had capsized, pitching him into the water and sending his 13-year-old son downstream with the boat.

The scary situation ended safely Sunday, in part because of an aggressive rescue effort. But veteran observers of Nebraska’s rivers worry that other boaters, especially novices, won’t be so lucky. The reason: Historic March flooding has changed the nature of some of the state’s rivers. Notably, the Elkhorn River, and to a lesser extent the Platte River, aren’t as safe as they appear, said Rich Tesar, a retired outfitter and board member of the Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District.

The Elkhorn especially is running deeper, swifter and stronger than before, and many of the sand bars are gone, Tesar said. In March, thick ice combined with powerful flows from runoff scoured out the river bottom.

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“(It) made it much, much deeper than it used to be,” he said. “People see it and they think they can get in and touch the bottom, but they can’t because the river could be three to five times deeper than normal.”

Even Nebraska rivers that weren’t similarly scoured are studded with debris and trees that can snag boaters and tubers. In some cases, the obstacles are submerged, which makes them especially dangerous.

In the case of Sunday’s water rescue, the 39-year-old father and his son had been on the river with another kayaker about four hours when they encountered “a swirl of rushing water,” according to the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office incident report. The man, who declined to be interviewed by The World-Herald, told sheriff’s officials that he tried to get around the swirling water but was sucked in and his kayak turned over.

Authorities located the boy about a mile downstream from his dad, said Waterloo Fire Chief Travis Harlow. The youth had been nabbed by the other kayaker. Omaha’s police helicopter landed in a field near the dad, and one of the officers helped him to safety.

Photos: Iowa and Nebraska brace for more flooding

On Tuesday, the river was carrying about 12,000 cubic feet per second at Waterloo, or about four times the amount of water that triggers shutting it down, Tesar said. By Thursday, the Elkhorn was running at about 10,200 cubic feet per second.

The power and depth of the Elkhorn is prompting the NRD to reconsider the river level at which it will open its access ramps. In the past, the ramps were open anytime the river was at or below 5 feet. (River-gauge readings are based on elevation, not river depth.) But because the river is now deeper, a “5-foot reading” might actually be twice as deep as it used to be, said Tesar and NRD general manager John Winkler.

“We need to adjust how we determine when it’s safe and when it’s not,” Winkler said. Determining the new level is going to take some time, he said. Until then, the NRD is focused on repairing its flood-damaged access ramps.

The NRD’s decision on when it will open its access ramps means that outfitters have their own decisions to make. In the past, metro area outfitter Tubing & Adventures followed the NRD’s lead in deciding when to send out boaters, said owner Brock Beran.

Beran said his company will consult with the NRD. Depending upon what the NRD decides, Tubing & Adventures may set its own threshold for boating and tubing.

Beran said his staff will float the river first, though, to get a feel for it and decide when to open.

“The river is dropping,” he said. “We might open this weekend.”

Tubing & Adventures has its own private access points, so they’re no longer dependent on the NRD sites, Beran said. His company offers a float from about West Dodge Road to Harrison Street, which is a little more than 6 miles.

Harlow, the Waterloo fire chief, said last weekend’s rescue illustrates a couple of points for the public to consider.

First, wear your life jackets. The father and son didn’t have their life jackets on — they were strapped to the kayaks, he said. “If you’re going to need your life jackets, by the time you need them, it will be too late to put them on,” he said.

Second, water rescues are costly. Taxpayers and volunteers foot the bill. In this case, volunteer firefighters from Bennington, Valley and Waterloo responded along with the Valley and Waterloo Police Departments, Douglas County Sheriff’s Office and Omaha police helicopter.

Eventually, the rivers will silt back in, Beran and the others said.

Beran said his crew will focus on educating people before they send them out on the river. More at risk, he said, are members of the public who drive to a bridge over the river and drop a boat in.

“We’ve been battling Mother Nature for 11 seasons,” he said. “A lot of this will be education — being sure our customers know there are some dangers out there. You have to pay attention.”

Photos: Douglas County roads battered by flooding

Omahan remembers historic day, and those who didn't come home

One of Omaha's last D-Day veterans drank a toast Thursday to the men who fell beside him while storming Omaha Beach 75 years ago to the day. Friends of Ed Morrissette, 95, took him for dinner and a drink to commemorate the somber occasion. The North Carolina native recalled fibbing about his age to enlist at 17. Assigned to the 1st Infantry Division, he survived the North Africa and Sicily campaigns and was in the second wave ashore on the morning of June 6, 1944. He dodged German machine gun fire as he waded with his heavy pack and smoked cigarettes while pinned behind a concrete barricade on the beach. He survived D-Day without a scratch and fought with The Big Red One until the end of the war in Europe, 11 months later. He even earned a Bronze Star for shooting down a German plane. After the war, he married and raised five children. He moved to Omaha in 1972, working as a civilian engineer at Offutt Air Force Base.

D-Day at 75: Nations honor veterans and those who perished

OMAHA BEACH, France (AP) — With silent remembrance and respect, nations honored the fallen and the bravery of all Allied troops who sloshed through bloodied water to the beaches of Normandy 75 years ago on D-Day, the assault that portended the fall of Adolf Hitler's Third Reich.

President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron praised the soldiers, sailors and airmen — the survivors and those who lost their lives — in powerful speeches Thursday that credited the June 6, 1944, surprise air and sea operation that brought tens of thousands of men to Normandy, each not knowing whether he would survive the day.

"You are the pride of our nation, you are the glory of our republic, and we thank you from the bottom of our heart," Trump said of the warriors engaged in the ultimate fight of good against evil in World War II.

Macron praised their courage, generosity and strength of spirit that made them press on "to help men and women they didn't know, to liberate a land most hadn't seen before, for no other cause but freedom, democracy."

He expressed France's debt to the U.S. for freeing his country from the reign of the Nazis. Macron awarded five American veterans with the Chevalier of Legion of Honor, France's highest award.

"We know what we owe to you, veterans: our freedom," he said, switching from French to English. "On behalf of my nation, I just want to say thank you."

D-Day was history's largest air and sea invasion, involving about 160,000 troops on that day itself and many more in the ensuing Battle of Normandy. Of those, 73,000 were from the U.S., while 83,000 were from Britain and Canada. Troops started landing overnight from the air, then were joined by a massive force by sea on the beaches codenamed Omaha, Utah, Juno, Sword and Gold, carried by 7,000 boats.

The second day of ceremonies moved to France after spirited commemorations a day earlier in Portsmouth, England, the main embarkation point for the transport boats.

Dignitaries, veterans, their families and the grateful from Europe and elsewhere were present for the solemn day.

At dawn, hundreds of people, civilians and military alike, hailing from around the world, gathered at the water's edge to remember the troops who stormed the fortified Normandy beaches to help turn the tide of the war and give birth to a new Europe.

Dick Jansen, 60, from the Netherlands, drank Canadian whisky from an enamel cup on the water's edge. Others scattered carnations into the waves. Randall Atanay, the son of a medic who tended to the dying and wounded, waded barefoot into the water near Omaha Beach, where the waters ran red on D-Day.

Up to 12,000 people gathered hours later at the ceremony at the Normandy American Cemetery, where Macron and Trump spoke. U.S. veterans, their numbers fast diminishing as the years pass, were the guests of honor.

A 21-gun salute thundered into the waters below the cemetery, on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach, and across the rows of white crosses and Stars of David. The final resting places of more than 9,380 of the fallen stretched out before the guests.

Among the bipartisan congressional group that traveled to participate in the commemoration were several members of Nebraska's all-GOP delegation.

Rep. Don Bacon said the highlight was meeting veterans of the war and hearing stories of their heroism. He recalled looking down from the high ground and pondering how the Americans storming up the beach were attacking a perfect defensive position.

"You could see how hard that would have been to come off these Higgins boats and all those machine guns and artillery up on top there," Bacon said.

Bacon said he also was struck at the young ages of so many of the fallen as he walked among the grave markers. Rep. Jeff Forten berry said in a press release that it was an honor to participate in the event. "We must never forget the heroic sacrifices made by those who gave everything, as the future of civilization hung in the balance," he said.

Sen. Deb Fischer noted in her own press release that her father served in World War II and that two of her uncles received Bronze Star citations for their service in Europe.

"It is truly amazing to visit Normandy and honor our service members on the 75th anniversary of D-Day," Fischer said.

Britain's Prince Charles, his wife, Camilla, and Prime Minister Theresa May attended a remembrance service at the medieval cathedral in Bayeux, the first Normandy town liberated by Allied troops after D-Day. Cardinal Marc Ouellet read a message from Pope Francis honoring those who "gave their lives for freedom and peace."

Hundreds of people packed the seaside square in the town of Arromanches to applaud veterans of the Battle of Normandy. A wreath was placed outside the town's D-Day Museum.

At daybreak, a lone piper played in Mulberry Harbor, exactly 75 years after British troops came ashore at Gold Beach.

"It is sobering, surreal to be able to stand here on this beach and admire the beautiful sunrise where they came ashore, being shot at, facing unspeakable atrocities," said 44-year-old former U.S. paratrooper Richard Clapp of Julian, North Carolina.

Gratitude was a powerful theme. Macron thanked those who did not survive the assault "so that France could become free again" at an earlier ceremony overlooking Gold Beach with May and uniformed veterans to lay the cornerstone of a memorial that will record the names of thousands of troops under British command who died on D-Day and in the ensuing Battle of Normandy.

"If one day can be said to have determined the fate of generations to come, in France, in Britain, in Europe and the world, that day was the 6th of June, 1944," May said.

As the sun rose that morning, not one of the thousands of men arriving in Normandy "knew whether they would still be alive when the sun set once again," she said.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hailed those who sacrificed their lives on the Normandy beaches for future generations, "for you and me."

Speaking at Juno Beach, where 14,000 Canadians landed, Trudeau said they "took a gamble the world had never seen before."

He lauded the resulting world order, including the United Nations and NATO, which have helped preserve peace.

"I have all kinds of friends buried," said 98-year-old William Tymchuk, who served with the 4th Canadian Armored Division during some of the deadliest fighting after the Normandy landings.

"They were young. They got killed. They couldn't come home," he said.

Then Tymchuk teared up. "Sorry," he said. "They couldn't even know what life is all about." The Battle of Normandy, codenamed Operation Overlord, hastened Germany's defeat. Allied troops advanced their fight, taking Paris in late summer and marching in a race with the Soviet Red Army to control as much German territory as possible by the time Adolf Hitler died in his Berlin bunker and Germany surrendered in May 1945.

The Soviet Union also fought valiantly against the Nazis — and lost more people than any other nation in World War II — but those final battles would divide Europe for decades between the West and the Soviet-controlled East, the faceoff line of the Cold War.

World-Herald staff writer Joseph Morton contributed to this report.

Sarpy shifts course on mental health facility site; county now in talks with health system

With less than a week to spare, Sarpy County officials are backing out of deal to build a mental health crisis center along a busy Bellevue intersection.

The county had approved a $1 million purchase agreement for a six-acre plot of land near 25th Street and Highway 370 in Bellevue. But the county announced Thursday that because of ongoing conversations with potential partners, service organizations and donors, they’ve decided against purchasing the Bellevue plot.

Calling it a “No. 1 priority,” Sarpy County Board Chairman Don Kelly said the county still plans to establish a crisis center. They are in talks with a local health system about the project, Kelly said in an interview with The World-Herald, and are working to finalize a partnership.

The proposed facility would be a place where law enforcement officers could bring people who are experiencing a mental health crisis but don’t belong in jail. County leaders have said the jail and area emergency rooms have been burdened by the absence of a dedicated mental health facility.

“Mental illness is medical; it’s not criminal,” Kelly said. “When people are in crisis, they’ve got to be able to be addressed by people who have the knowledge, skill and ability to do that. That’s not in a jail, and that’s not in a standalone facility.”

Kelly said they have looked at other potential sites suggested by Bellevue city officials and have visited mental health facilities elsewhere in the nation. Through that process, Kelly said, county officials realized that they wanted the facility to be “co-located” with a medical facility.

Sarpy County officials announced Thursday that they will not build a mental health crisis center near 25th Street and Highway 370 in Bellevue.

The purchase agreement for the land near 25th Street and Highway 370 was approved in February. The agreement included a 120-day period allowing the county to withdraw from the purchase without any financial penalties.

Kelly said that since announcing the facility, the county has received calls, emails and messages of support, as well as firsthand accounts from people and families affected by mental illness.

Bellevue officials, including Mayor Rusty Hike, also spoke in support of such a facility but against the 25th Street site.

They argued that the land could instead attract private development, which would bring tax revenue to the city. The crisis center, on the other hand, would be tax-exempt, meaning that the city in which it’s located would not collect property taxes.

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“Everybody knows that mental health is an issue today, and we’re certainly not opposed to coming up with the best solution to that,” Hike told The World-Herald on Thursday. “We’re all for it. It was simply the location.”

At a meeting in April, the Bellevue City Council passed a symbolic resolution saying the project should be taken elsewhere.

Hike said he was happy to hear about the change in plans. The city will work on finding a business for the space once the property goes back on the market, Hike said. Several years ago, a group of doctors looked to build a clinic on the land — vacant since at least 2008 — and officials would like to find something along those lines again.

The crisis center is expected to be available for use by all Sarpy County law enforcement agencies, as well as Cass, Dodge, Douglas and Washington Counties.

Photos: Our best shots of 2019 (so far)

'No happy endings': A deer crashes the morning docket at the Douglas County Courthouse

Call it the case of Jane Doe.

Doe, a full-grown female deer, provided a short-lived jolt to the routine of the Douglas County Courthouse on Thursday morning.

And brace yourself: Aside from adoptions and perhaps 50% of weddings, well ... “there are no happy endings at the courthouse,” longtime prosecutor Jeff Lux said.

Lux would know. From his “garden-level” courthouse office — with its scenic, subterranean views — Lux has seen all sorts of wildlife: “raccoons, a turkey, a deer ...”

His voice drifts.

“... a drug addict.”

Wait. We interrupt this deer tale to allow Lux to explain. A few years ago, he was in the County Attorney’s conference room with two state senators, talking about legislative proposals, when a man jumped down into the window well, lifted up a drain cover, grabbed a baggie, climbed back out of the window well and scurried off.

“The senators couldn’t believe their eyes,” Lux said.

Lux wasn’t quite as shocked.

Then came Thursday.

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Shortly after 9 a.m., Doe had apparently nosed her way around the windows of the U.S. Bank branch at the Woodmen Tower near 17th and Farnam Streets. Then Douglas County courthouse security officers Doug Schlautman and Robert Martinez saw it sprint straight across Farnam and up the wide walkway and steps that lead to the courthouse.

It essentially ran into the revolving door but couldn’t figure it out. (No slight to the deer. Observers have watched several courtgoers struggle to figure out how a door revolves.)

Doe then jumped over a marble ledge and landed 12 feet below, in the window well outside the offices of Nicole Brundo, a deputy Douglas County attorney, and Julie Martin, a workers’ compensation judge.

And then, bedlam. Several members of the Douglas County Attorney’s Office crammed into Brundo’s office.

“There he is,” one attorney said as the deer paced in front of the window, perhaps confused by its reflection.

“Oh my gosh,” another said.

“Is that blood?”

“Maybe we should call Animal Control?”

The deer thumped against the window. Brundo furiously dialed.

“I’m down at the courthouse — and I have one of those (picture) windows, and a deer jumped down 12 feet into my window well,” Brundo said into the phone. “He’s hurt. He’s enclosed. He’s banging around on the window.”

She turned to the attorneys gathered. “He can’t get out, can he?”

Martinez, meanwhile, was concerned that she — the deer was a doe — might get in. He warned the attorneys to back up.

“Those windows aren’t that thick,” Martinez said. “This isn’t the zoo.”

Pardon prosecutors for being confused. Inside its first-floor office, the County Attorney’s Office has had adventures with mice, a rat and a bat. Outside, raccoons, turkeys and chubby squirrels. Maybe the deer could join the courthouse kingdom — and they all could live happily ever after.

But this isn’t a Disney movie. Outside, security screeners, prosecutors and sheriff’s deputies gathered, waiting for the Nebraska Humane Society to arrive.

By then, Doe had run into the window of Martin’s office, shattering it. Blood poured down her front legs.

Soon after, a Humane Society veterinarian and animal control officer arrived. The veterinarian shot it with a tranquilizer dart — and eventually the deer lay down.

The veterinarian examined the injured deer. And for a moment, courthouse personnel had visions of their very own Bambi, roaming the halls, nuzzling up to judges, maybe even high-fiving drug court graduates.

“They told everyone they tranquilized it,” one officer said.

He winked. The tranquilizer was permanent. Very, very permanent.

Mark Langan, vice president of field operations for the Nebraska Humane Society, said after tranquilizing the deer and surveying its wounds, the veterinarian had no choice but to euthanize it.

“The injuries were too severe,” Langan said. “(She) put this deer down as quick as she could.”

Attorneys, as they’re wont to do, spent the rest of the day speculating about how the deer made its way to 17th and Farnam. Their verdict: Maybe flooding was to blame. Maybe it no longer had a home at the Gene Leahy Mall, which is undergoing renovations.

Langan doubted it. Deer don’t hang out at the mall, he said. It likely made its way from the woods near Conagra’s campus, got confused, hustled its way west.

And wound up at the last place for storybook endings.

Our best photos from May 2019