OMAHA, Neb. - More than two-thirds of Nebraska’s counties in a state of emergency. Fourteen bridges damaged or destroyed, severing major transportation corridors. Extensive livestock and crop losses. And three confirmed deaths — so far.
“The most extensive damage our state has ever experienced,” Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts said Monday, summing up the impact of the past week’s catastrophic flooding.
PHOTO GALLERY: See photos of the flooding in the Midwest in a gallery at the end of this story
As floodwaters in some areas began to level out or slowly recede, the reality set in that cleanup and reconstruction efforts would stretch months — or longer.
Five days after the flooding began in earnest, the magnitude of devastation continued to come into focus as 64 of Nebraska’s 93 counties and four tribal areas had declared a state of emergency.
Some Nebraskans returned to their homes Monday to find structural damage and water in their basements. Others, still barred from their residences by washed-out roads, were stuck wondering if they had anything to return to.
And across the Missouri River, ongoing flooding in places like the small town of Pacific Junction, Iowa, is causing millions of dollars in damage.
Ricketts said Nebraska officials don’t have an estimate of how long the road to recovery might be, but he noted that during historic floods in 2011, water in Plattsmouth, Nebraska, didn’t recede for 3½ months. Only then could the rebuilding begin.
As of Monday, state officials had determined that 11 bridges would need to be replaced and three others would require reconstruction.
Combine the bridge work with about 200 miles of roads that will need repairs, and Kyle Schneweis, director of the State Department of Transportation, said he’s confident that “hundreds of millions of dollars” will be necessary.
Meanwhile, agriculture is taking a big hit. Steve Nelson, president of the Nebraska Farm Bureau, estimated that there will be $400 million to $500 million in livestock losses and about $400 million in crop losses.
A third death as a result of the flooding was reported Monday. An 80-year-old Columbus, Nebraska, woman died after high waves and wind gusts of 60 mph prevented rescue teams from freeing her from her home in rural Columbus. Her body was retrieved Saturday.
The Nebraska Supreme Court said 19 infirm people assigned state-funded public guardians had to find emergency homes because of the flooding.
Many commuters in the Omaha area will feel the flood’s effects in their drive times. Flooded roads added 30 minutes Monday to Mike Ostblom’s normal 25-minute commute from Yutan to Papillion.
Nebraska Highway 92 across the Platte River is closed, so Ostblom had to head west to Mead, south to Ithaca and then farther south to Ashland, and then up Interstate 80 to 144th Street.
He expects that heavier-than-normal traffic will be unavoidable for a while.
“This will be continuing until the roads get open or fixed,” he said. “It’s not going to get any better anytime soon.”
Major Gen. Daryl Bohac, the adjutant general of the Nebraska National Guard, said drivers need to continue observing road closures, even as floodwaters recede. He said roads and bridges need to be assessed for structural integrity before they can be reopened.
Bryan Tuma, assistant director of the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency,
said there have been a number of propane tanks floating downstream but no reports of major hazardous releases and no reports of problems with pipelines or communications networks.
The governor’s emergency fund stood at $3.9 million before last week’s storms, and state costs to date have amounted to $650,000, Bohac said. Although the fund is lower than the $5 million target, he said he thinks that it will be sufficient for now.
Small signs of hope have popped up in some areas like spring flowers. A Sunday night convoy transporting donations to Fremont elicited cheers from those who had been marooned in the city since Friday, trapped by water on all sides.
Another convoy made its way to the city Monday afternoon. And Highway 36 into Fremont opened Monday to one-lane traffic directed by a pilot car.
The state is in the process of applying for an expedited declaration of disaster from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Tuma said. The FEMA administrator was expected to be in Nebraska on Tuesday along with a management team.
Vice President Mike Pence will also be in Nebraska on Tuesday to survey damage from the flood, according to a tweet from White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. He is expected to be joined in his tour by Ricketts and Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds.
“Thank you to First Responders and many volunteers helping those affected!” Sanders tweeted.