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Flooding ravages parts of Nebraska and Iowa

Mar 17, 2019 06:24AM ● By Editor


By Erin Duffy, Julie Anderson and Erin Grace / Omaha World-Herald staff writers - March 16, 2019

Let Fremont be a warning.

Floodwaters there cut off all roads in and out of town starting Friday. Two levees were breached Saturday.

So residents know all too well about washed-out roads. They heard the flash flood warnings blaring from cellphones. They left their homes behind and ended up on cots in community centers or churches.

And all that could be an ominous sign of what’s to come in parts of southeastern Nebraska and western Iowa as record-busting water levels continue to push huge torrents of water downstream.

Similar scenarios have played out from Columbus to Wood River to Plattsmouth. Levees breaching. Rivers, lakes and creeks swelling. And people in the way forced to make critical decisions: Should I stay or should I go?

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts estimated Saturday that one-third of the state has been affected by floods, largely the eastern third. Fifty-two counties and two American Indian tribes have issued emergency declarations in the aftermath of a storm that stretched across the Midwest but hit Nebraska and neighboring areas of South Dakota and Iowa hardest with flooding.

Ricketts and other state officials said people in the path of possible floodwaters should consider leaving pre-emptively — don’t wait to be told to evacuate and risk being trapped or in need of rescue.

In Waterloo, sandwiched between the Elkhorn and Platte Rivers, people were stranded, said a local pastor, Mike Bitter of the Christian Church of Waterloo.

“There is no way out of here unless you’ve got a helicopter — or a boat,” Bitter said.

(Later on Saturday, it wasn’t quite a helicopter that would help some people, but the Union Pacific Railroad, with vehicles that took people in Waterloo and elsewhere along its train lines to safety.)

In Fremont, where the Platte River swelled, evacuees included Cristofer Sanchez, 16, who grabbed clothes, shoes and his PlayStation — “the essentials,” he joked — on Friday. On Saturday, he joined the sandbag line at a flooded stretch of Old Highway 275.

“It hasn’t been stopping,” he said of the water creeping into town. Sanchez is staying with a friend while he’s away from home.

On Friday night, the American Red Cross sheltered almost 900 people, and more shelters opened Saturday. By early Saturday evening, the shelters in Fremont alone counted up to 1,100 people, with more evacuees expected from Snyder, Nebraska. And those numbers don’t capture the swaths of people riding out the flood in hotel rooms or crashing on the couches of family and friends.

Those who decided to evacuate left by plane, train line and automobile. There were departures by boat, by airboat and by massive military vehicles with jacked-up frames capable of cruising through waterlogged roads.

On Saturday afternoon, Union Pacific started transporting people who were evacuating the flooded Waterloo and Valley areas to the safety of Elkhorn. Evacuees were being transported by high-rail vehicles along U.P.’s rail lines to Elkhorn Middle School.

With road travel in and out of Fremont still impossible Saturday, some turned to the sunny blue skies, paying for short flights out of the city of 26,000 that became an island surrounded by water.

Some parents who work in Omaha found themselves on the wrong side of the Elkhorn River on Friday, with children in day care or at home on their first day of spring break marooned in Fremont.

So Advanced Air of Council Bluffs ferried children to parents in Omaha. One flight in pilot Nicholas Oliveira’s four-seater Piper Arrow held a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old.

Nebraska should qualify for federal disaster relief

As he toured an emergency shelter in Fremont, Ricketts rattled off sobering statistics: At least one person is dead and two more missing in Nebraska. In Iowa, one person drowned Friday night when a car drove past a barricade and hit water.

Scores of towns have experienced some sort of evacuation. Untold bridges and roads would need to be replaced or shored up. Levees will need to be fixed.

It’s too early to say how much of a hit the state took and what it will cost to rebuild lost homes, businesses, roads and bridges. What seems certain is that the inevitable cleanup will require a massive turnout of workers, residents and volunteers.

Ricketts has said the damage is widespread enough that the state should have no problem qualifying for federal disaster aid.

Both Ricketts and Sen. Ben Sasse, whose own Fremont-area home was taking in water, said Saturday that they had been in contact with President Donald Trump in the past 24 hours. Sasse said he had also spoken to Vice President Mike Pence.

Ricketts said that when he was flying to Fremont, it was hard to tell where the Platte River’s channel was supposed to be. Ricketts offered caution: Don’t drive into water, he said. Don’t do it.

Some law enforcement agencies, including the Omaha Police Department and the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, said they would ticket anyone driving around or through barricades on closed roads.

For more on the Nebraska flooding and to read related reporting, follow this link to the Omaha World Herald.

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