Bill Lemmers had never seen the Platte River like this.
The river that runs the whole state of Nebraska is known for being “a mile wide and an inch deep,” but Friday it looked like an angry ocean with waves.
“They were 8 foot tall, easily,” Lemmers said. “You could surf a wave that high.”
The dirty brown waves, complete with wind-blown whitecaps, carried whole trees, ice chunks and debris, creating a menacing spectacle that attracted rubbernecking motorists to highway bridges.
But for homeowners in riverside communities, there was little time to admire this spectacle.
Residents were evacuating North Lake, a lake community in Cass County just west of Platte River State Park near South Bend, Nebraska.
The area is a mixture of summer homes and year-round residences next to the Platte River, with only a dike separating the homes from the river.
The Platte was running exceptionally high near the community Friday, and water had partially climbed the dike. In some places along the dike, it appeared the river could spill into the community if the water were to rise another foot or two.
Longtime residents reported seeing kayaks, picnic tables, propane tanks, ice chunks and huge logs rolling by in the churning, brown Platte River.
Lemmers was parked on the road by the river and had his chainsaw out, focusing his concern on a tree atop the dike, which was getting hammered by debris caught in the current. He feared that if the tree were torn loose and uprooted it could create a soft spot in the dike — a weakness that could let the river break through.
Residents received a message around 10 a.m. Friday from the neighborhood association advising them to evacuate. Some homes were only a hundred feet or so from the river. Vehicles could be seen leaving the area hauling a boat and a golf cart on trailers.
Members of one family were busy at their home loading up a pickup with furnishings. They decided to carry some of the smaller items, like family photos and other mementos and heirlooms, to an upstairs bedroom where the water, maybe, couldn’t reach.
They planned to stay with family in Gretna.
Berniece Jones, an instructor at Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln who lives at North Lake, was loading up her pickup truck Friday afternoon with personal items and her three dogs. She planned to head to Lincoln to stay with a friend.
“So this is my spring break. Wonderful, huh,” Jones said.
She said this is the highest she has seen the water in the 12 years that she has lived at North Lake.
People were concerned about both the possibility of a levee breach or an ice jam.
She said the Platte “looked like it was boiling” on Thursday.
“I’m hoping it stays where it’s at,” said Bob Leftwich, who has lived at North Lake for 15 years.
He said he thinks the dikes can handle it, but “another foot up and we could be in trouble.”
Amanda Visty, whose extended family owns four summer cabins on the lake and the adjacent Middle Island, said she was grateful they weren’t under water yet.
“But I’m fearful tomorrow will be the deciding day,” she said.
People were moving vehicles and boats into the nearby South Bend community on higher ground.
She said the Platte is normally flat, smooth and shallow.
“We have walked across this river on the sandbars, we have golfed it, taken four-wheelers on it,” Visty said. “Now it looks like the ocean or the Mississippi. It’s got crests and powerful current. It’s terrifying to think of the damage it could do. It could sweep anyone away. You would just be gone.”
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Sandy Weyers, emergency management director for Cass County, said an elderly man was airlifted from River Road near Plattsmouth on Friday afternoon after rescuers could not safely reach him by land or boat.
Weyers received reports that the river had spilled into the Horseshoe Lake riverside community, near Mahoney State Park, and some cabins had up to 4 feet of water.
The Louisville State Recreation Area, a collection of small lakes and campgrounds, was flooded. Trailers and homes at the river’s edge in Louisville had also seen flooding.
Sandbagging efforts were under way at Cedar Creek, another river community located on the east side of Highway 50, and at Lake Wakonda, a community of permanent and summer homes along the Missouri River.