Historic flooding in Nebraska and Iowa has claimed at least one life, flooded an unknown number of towns and cut off communities — and the worst could still be ahead.
Major flooding remains possible on the Missouri, Elkhorn and Loup Rivers, said David Pearson, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service.
These rising river levels mean the unthinkable is possible: that 2019 could be the year that two terrible flood years — the devastating flooding on the Elkhorn River in 2010 and the record-shattering flood of 2011 on the Missouri River — wrap into one.
“The 2011 flooding was probably one of the bigger disaster events in our history. I think we can safely say ... this event rivals it,” said Bryan Tuma, assistant director of the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency.
The frightening nature of the flooding, felt from one end of the state to the other, became all too real Thursday night. According to emergency dispatch and Twitter reports, at least one boat with firefighters capsized as they were trying to rescue people in Dodge County near the Elkhorn River. Numerous helicopters were called to assist. Seven people were taken to the hospital apparently suffering from hypothermia, at least one in critical condition, according to 911 dispatch reports. That firefighter may have been in the water for an hour or more.
Here’s a look at what lies ahead, and the devastation already wrought:
Numerous water rescues; some people hospitalized
In Missouri Valley, Iowa, two residents were taken to the local hospital in critical condition after being exposed to frigid waters during water rescues, said Mayor Shawn Kelly.
Kelly said crews from several agencies had performed about a dozen water rescues Thursday, helping people stranded in vehicles or in their homes in areas where they were told to evacuate.
Also on Thursday, a volunteer firefighter working on a rescue in the Waterloo area developed hypothermia after he got a hole in his wet suit, said Chief Dan Olsen, joint incident commander for the disaster response effort in the metro area.
At least one fatality, at least one person missing
At Shell Creek near Columbus, a farmer drove a tractor out to assist a motorist who was stuck in floodwaters and was swept away and died, Tuma said.
A person may have been swept away when the Spencer Dam collapsed on the Niobrara River.
When the 91-year-old concrete structure dam failed, it washed away a popular straw-bale tavern, a bait shop, a half-dozen camper vehicles and a home. A man who lived in the home was missing.
“It looks like there was never anything there,” said Paul Allen, 75, whose ranch is downstream of the dam.
A quarter-mile section of U.S. Highway 281 washed out just south of the bridge over the Niobrara River. At the Allen ranch, floodwaters 4 to 5 feet deep inundated pastures and livestock pens, Allen said, scattering cattle.
Record levels on the Missouri River, Interstate closures?
By Thursday evening, the Missouri River at Plattsmouth had already exceeded the levels it reached in 2011, Pearson said.
The Missouri is expected to reach record levels at Brownville, Nebraska, perhaps as soon as Friday evening. If those levels are reached, federal levees on both the Iowa and Nebraska side would be overtopped, according to projections by the weather service. If that happens, Interstate 29 would be inundated. Additionally, high flows from farther north could again close Interstate 680 in Iowa and Interstate 29 north of Council Bluffs.
What’s not immediately clear is whether bridges that span the Missouri River would be as inaccessible as they were in 2011.
Additionally, the rising Missouri River could force a shutdown of Nebraska’s only nuclear plant, Cooper Nuclear Station, which is near Brownville. The Nebraska Public Power District has been sandbagging the plant and preparing for that possibility.
On Thursday, the Army Corps of Engineers increased flows from Gavins Point Dam to 90,000 cubic feet per second in an effort to release floodwater coming in from the Niobrara River. Those increases are more than four times what the corps was discharging from the dam just a week ago.
Communities flooded, evacuated
Water rescues continued into the evening Thursday as numerous riverside homes and communities took on water.
And like countless other communities, officials urged citizens to seek higher ground voluntarily so as to not overtax local resources.
“I’m telling you, if you’re told to evacuate, please evacuate. If you choose to stay where you’re at, you’re on your own,” said Shane Weidner, Norfolk’s public safety director.
Weidner said the Elkhorn River was reaching the record levels seen in 2010, and it may get worse.
In Washington County, Sheriff Mike Robinson also called on people to evacuate.
“My advice to anyone living along the Missouri River or along any other rivers or streams is to evacuate now,” Robinson said Thursday.
Omaha’s flood protection robust
City of Omaha officials say they do not expect the city to flood, but they’re shoring up defenses at the city’s lesser protected sewage treatment plant.
The city has closed the floodgates that protect downtown. Omaha has 13 miles of flood control along the river.
During the 2011 Missouri River flood, the Missouri crested at 36 feet and the levee was not breached. The latest projections are that the river will peak at 33.9 feet in Omaha, which would be well below the 2011 level.
World-Herald staff writers Alia Conley, Paul Hammel, Joe Dejka, Erin Duffy, Kevin Cole, Susan Szalewski and Connie White contributed to this report, which includes material from the World-Herald News Service.