Pretty hard to get the mind around a 500-year flood. Standing on the ridge at Offutt Air Force Base, where the Platte River flowing east meets the Missouri River flowing south, I saw how rain on top of snow on top of frozen ground unleashed an unprecedented force of water that covered a third of the base and many communities in eastern Nebraska. As the rushing water hit the bank on the Iowa side, it blew out the levee and scoured a hole 62-foot deep.
As a member of the Appropriations Committee in Congress, I turned to the commander of the Corps of Engineers and asked, “What’s the number?” Without hesitation, he looked me right in the eye and shot back: “It’s going to be a lot.”
Yesterday morning, in a meeting with Governor Ricketts and Senator Sasse to review the full scale of the destruction in Fremont, Mayor Scotty Getzschman brought out a map of the Platte river from 1940 that showed the old river channel. The problem for Fremont began when the river got a bit nostalgic and went back to its old ways. In a place now named “Ground Zero” near the Rod and Gun Club west of town, massive ice chunks and the pressure of the Platte blew the levee out. Water began to find its own channels in multiple breeches, with the southern part of Fremont enduring serious flooding. We surveyed the damage from a freshly patched hole made from remnants of an old hog confinement lot and riprap from the old Scribner air base.
An initial call for help brought 250 people out to sandbag. Now more than 1000 people volunteer. One man who moved his car to higher ground only to see it later swept away by the river has helped by directing traffic the last four days.
A bit west of Fremont in the small town of North Bend, a ditch dike could not contain itself and made its own channel, creating fingers of water flowing through the city streets. The vast majority of homes in North Bend were hit. Several feet of sandbags still line the exterior of the Platte Valley Bank and many businesses downtown. The paved streets look like mud streets. Even with six inches of water inside of it, however, the local newspaper, the North Bend Eagle, found a way to get the latest edition out on time.
Realizing he was in a critical spot, the school superintendent transformed the school into a center of gravity for emergency operations. The fire station, counseling, medical care (including tetanus shots), UPS deliveries, and various command posts are now centralized there. Though school’s been canceled for nearly two weeks, it doesn’t mean the kids aren’t busy. Initially they sandbagged. Now they volunteer with cleanup efforts. In about a week they will hold their prom.
The people of North Bend organized themselves and used social networks to spread the word of their needs. Goods have poured in from all over the country. The superintendent told me, “What was happening could make a good country song....They would have so much more appreciation for Nebraska.”
Areas south of Columbus along the Loup and Platte were particularly hard hit, with large and mounting ag losses, the most visible sign of which are dead cattle. Nearby, the T-Bone Truck Stop greets passersby with two enormous decorative cowboy boots mounted on pedestals. One was found at Matulka’s garage about 300 yards away. The other one has now been located across highway 81 half a mile away. As T-Bone’s manager Fred showed me around, I could see a doomsday line of muck about four feet up on the wall where the water crested. The inside is not exactly clean yet, but most of the mud is gone. As Fred told me, “At T-Bone’s, we don’t mess around. We’re Nebraskans. We get it done.”
On a more positive note, a federal project initiated after the last flood saved Schuyler. Omaha’s flood control system worked extraordinarily well. The President quickly approved Nebraska’s congressional delegation request for expedited federal disaster assistance. Even in the midst of this trauma, Nebraskans have found their way to a few laughs. A sign on the fence across from T-Bone’s reads: “Mud Wrestling Tomorrow.”
Back at Offutt Air Force Base, it’s a pretty jarring scene when you see a large fuel tank lifted up and turned on its side. It shows you the powerful force of water. Yet, there is a certain irony at Offutt. Through a series of negotiations over the last few years, a contract was just completed to increase the height of the levees¬––a bit late for this event, but an important future preventative. A portion of the runway went under water. A new runway is scheduled for construction later this year. It’s never a good time to have a flood, but, as Colonel Manion told me, “By 2020, we’re going to have a new car smell around here.”
As with many of you, friends and family have contacted me from around the country. A nun from Rome wrote to me offering her prayers. A Congressman offered to send his staff up to help with recovery. The Jordanian Ambassador to the United States texted to express her concern.
I recently happened to catch the end of the Auburn vs. North Bend state basketball championship finals on Nebraska Educational Television. North Bend lost in a heartbreaker. With a hand of friendship, Auburn has rallied to send North Bend supplies. Nebraska Strong.