As rain began falling throughout much of eastern Nebraska on Tuesday, concerns were raised by various officials and organizations about the potential for “historic flooding” events in the coming days.
While a few inches of rain in March isn’t usually abnormal, paired with frozen ground, saturated soil, melting snowpack and thick ice on rivers, it has created the potential “to produce a well above normal flood risk for a storm of this magnitude,” the National Weather Service said in a situation report issued Tuesday morning.
“We get flooding every year somewhere in Nebraska — it’s not too uncommon — but the thing that sets this year apart is all the moisture in play, the snowpack, the ground is very wet, the rivers have a lot of ice, so that is a threat,” NWS Senior Hydrologist David Pearson told the Tribune on Friday. “With all that combined, we are seeing a pretty good probability of increasing that normal threat for flooding and major flooding.”
Along with a flood advisory issued for a multitude of counties in eastern Nebraska and western Iowa — including Dodge, Saunders and Washington counties — which advised of melting snowpack causing minor flooding on Tuesday, the NWS also issued a flood warning along the Missouri River and along the Elkhorn River including at Winslow in eastern Dodge County.
The flood warning for the Elkhorn River at Winslow is expected to last until at least Saturday night, according to NWS.
As of Tuesday afternoon, the weather service warned of the potential for record flooding of the Elkhorn at Winslow with water forecast to rise above the flood stage by Wednesday evening to near 21.6 feet by Thursday evening.
The flood stage of the Elkhorn at Winslow is set at 17 feet, while water begins to flow over County Road J east of Winslow at 22 feet.
NWS also issued alerts for Logan Creek near Uehling, forecasting the possibility of minor flooding with the flood stage of 18 feet expected to be reached by Thursday morning.
While a flood advisory was issued for Dodge County until 7:45 p.m. on Tuesday as of press time, the NWS also issued a flood watch for Dodge, Saunders and Washington counties until Thursday.
The other major concern being monitored by officials on Tuesday is potential ice jams along the Elkhorn and particularly the Platte River.
“Basically every stream and every river by Thursday is going to be full and there will be minor flooding in places; The big unknown is will this water lift and break ice and start creating ice jams,” Bob Heimann of Lower Platte North NRD told the Tribune. “That’s the question that no one really knows at this point, so everyone needs to be on their toes and continue to watch it closely over the next several days.”
Most of eastern Nebraska is in a flood watch through Thursday night, and the Weather Service said several rivers in the area are expected to reach major flood stage over the next several days, including the Missouri, Platte, Elkhorn and Blue. Record or near-record water levels are possible.
For example, the Platte River near Louisville is expected to crest at 12.2 feet on Thursday, which would be just below the record of 12.4 feet.
Pearson said ice jam flooding along the Platte is rare, specifically in the Fremont area, but that when it does occur it is dangerous due to the quickness of flooding in an affected area.
“Ice jams can be very volatile,” he said. “It can happen very quickly because the ice can be moving and the next thing you know it stops and behind it the water backs up and can rise quickly, sometimes several feet within an hour.”
At the local level, the City of Fremont closed Hormel Park and the Hormel Boat Ramp along the Platte River on Monday in anticipation of potential flooding.
City Administrator Brian Newton said the city has been trying to stay prepared in the event of river flooding by monitoring the cut-off ditch between Fremont and Ames, and making sure it has sand and sandbags available in case river flooding does occur.
“We’ve had the guys go out and make sure that we have adequate sand and sandbags in case we need to use that,” he said. “We’re also keeping an eye on the cut-off ditch out west of town. The Platte is going to do what it is going to do, but if the cut-off ditch comes up first then we know we have problems.”
He also said the city has been monitoring flooding of streets within the city limits and trying to open any frozen drains so any flood water could flow away more easily.
“We have been monitoring and trying to find areas where there is flooding and making sure the drains are open,” he said. “A lot of the drains are frozen shut because all of the snow and ice have packed those — so just making sure those are open and flowing.”
With the potential for flooding a high risk over the next few days, the Nebraska Department of Transportation is also urging motorists to never drive over a flooded roadway.
Any water over the road could stall or even float a vehicle, and should you encounter a flooded roadway you are advised to turn around, according to information released by NDOT.
“This latest storm looks to have significant impact on a majority of the state in very different ways,” NDOT Director Kyle Schneweis said in a released statement. “As always, drivers are encouraged to be informed about weather and road conditions before making the decision to travel. Should motorists encounter flooding in the eastern part of the state, remember to never travel over a flooded roadway.”
The Nebraska State Patrol also reminded residents to avoid travel if conditions create impassable roads.
“Our troopers will be prepared to help any motorists who need assistance,” Col. John Bolduc, superintendent of the Nebraska State Patrol, said in a released statement. “We urge all drivers to be vigilant and avoid travel if conditions aren’t favorable.”
Travelers are advised to be alert, be aware and check the most up-to-date travel conditions available through 511, Nebraska’s Advanced Traveler Information System. The system is available at all times via phone by, online at www.511.nebraska.gov, Nebraska 511’s smartphone app or by dialing 511.
As a reminder, the NSP Highway Helpline is available 24 hours per day for motorists in need of assistance. Drivers can reach NSP by dialing *55 from any cell phone. Call 911 for any emergency.