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Deadly, Historic Flooding Swamps Plains, Midwest

Mar 17, 2019 03:00PM ● By Editor

By Pam Wright and Ron Brackettless - - March 17, 2019  

All along Midwest rivers Sunday, residents and officials prepared for flooding that already has killed at least two people, forced mandatory evacuations, breached dams and levees and may force a nuclear power plant to shut down out of an abundance of caution.

Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, Nebraska, was restricted to "mission essential personnel" on Sunday after about a third of the base was cut off by rising flood waters from the Missouri River. Thirty buildings have been inundated with as much as 8 feet of water, Tech. Sgt. Rachelle Blake, a 55th Wing spokeswoman, told the Omaha World-Herald. 

Thurman, Iowa, began evacuations about 7:30 a.m. Sunday EDT as fast moving water approached the town in the southwest corner of the state. The National Weather Service said the flooding was likely the result of levee breaches on the Missouri River. Areas of other Iowa towns had already evacuated, including Hamburg, Percival, McPaul and Bartlett.

In St. Joseph, Missouri, the Missouri River is expected to crest at 30.1 feet early this week, and the city is asking volunteers to help fill sandbags. The goal, city spokesperson Mary Robinson told WDAF-TV, is to have 150,000 sandbags by Tuesday to add a 2-foot wall to the levee. 

Farther downstream, the Missouri is expected to crest above major flood stage in Atchison, Kansas, and just below that stage in Leavenworth, according to the National Weather Service. In Kansas City, where banks and levees are higher, it’s projected to crest at 32.4 feet, which is just above minor flood stage. 

The flooding earlier turned Nebraska's sixth largest city into "an island." Fremont, Nebraska, lies about 40 miles northwest of Omaha and is home to more than 26,000 residents. After flooding from the Elkhorn and Platte rivers cut the city off from the rest of the state, volunteers spent much of Saturday filling sandbags and lining them up to block water, the Freemont Tribune reported. 

Volunteers also helped set up shelters; Spanish teachers translated for those who didn't speak English, and cooks at the Hy-Vee grocery store worked with the American Red Cross to feed stranded people, the Omaha World-Herald reported. A pilot from Lincoln, Nebraska, landed at Freemont's airport to give three meat cutters at the WholeStone Farms plant a lift home, where they each had children waiting.

“As long as we can help other people, that’s what we’re doing,” Adam Hunnel said.

On Saturday, two levees were breached northwest of the city, triggering a flash flood emergency and mandatory evacuations. One of the two breaches was later patched. 

Friday in Inglewood, south of Fremont.  Photo:  Tammy McKeighan, Fremont Tribune

Mike Wight, public information officer for the Nebraska Emergency Management Office, told they are keeping a close eye on the situation in Fremont. 

Rescues and evacuations are continuing throughout impacted areas and the rising Missouri River in the town of Brownville, Nebraska, meant officials began preparing to shut down the Cooper Nuclear Power Station if it was needed, according to a press release. 

Wight told there is "concern" for the nuclear plant but emphasized that it "is perfectly safe."

"We don't expect any safety issues but we do expect they will get flooding around them and if it gets too far they will shut it down," Wight said, adding that it will not be an "issue with power supply" because they can get power from other sources within the grid. 

On Sunday, the Nebraska Public Power District said in a release the plant was still operating at 100 percent and the river's water level had been stable for six hours. 

On Saturday, Black Hawk helicopters were dropping 1.5-ton sandbags to protect wells that serve the city of Lincoln, home to more than 284,000 people. The wells are located on an island in the rising Platte River. 

After surveying the extensive flooding from the air, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts said in a Friday press conference that it was the "most widespread flooding damage we've had in the last half-century."

"Even when we were away from the water system, we saw that the fields were very saturated," he added.

A man works his way through a flooded Galena Street as the Pecatonica River continues to rise in Darlington Wisconsin Thursday March 14 2019 Dave KetteringTelegraph Herald via AP
A man works his way through a flooded Galena Street as the Pecatonica River continues to rise in Darlington, Wisconsin, Thursday, March 14, 2019. Photo:  Dave Kettering/Telegraph Herald 

The U.S. Coast Guard closed all traffic Friday on a 70-mile stretch of the Missouri River from 50 miles south of Omaha, Nebraska, to St. Joseph, Missouri.

Meanwhile, a portion of Union Dike in Valley, Nebraska, reportedly failed Friday, triggering a flash flood emergency. Residents in the area were urged to evacuate, including the NWS Omaha, which issued the flood emergency.

NWS Hastings will take over forecasting duties for the office.

A Nebraska farmer identified as James Wilke, 50, was killed Thursday after the tractor he was using to attempt to rescue a stranded motorist was carried away by floodwaters, the Omaha World-Herald reported. The incident occurred at Shell Creek near Columbus in eastern Nebraska.

A 55-year-old Nebraska man died Friday night after being trapped by flooding in Riverton, Iowa, the Des Moines Register reported. Aleido Rojas Galan of Norfolk, Nebraska, and two other men were in a car that was swept away by flood water. All three were rescued, but Galan died on his way to the hospital, the Fremont County Sheriff's office said. The other two men were recovering in an Omaha hospital.

Also in Nebraska, two other men are missing and presumed dead. Scott E. Goodman, 30, of Norfolk was seen at 4 a.m. Thursday on top of his car near a levee that failed. It was reported that he was later seen being carried away by a surge of water, according to the Norfolk Daily News. 

A second, unidentified man may have been swept away Thursday when the Spencer Dam collapsed on the Niobrara River.

When the dam failed, it caused a large ice floe to jam a hole in a small electrical plant, where employees were working. No other injuries were reported. The failure also forced the evacuation of dozens of residents along the river.

Meanwhile, Ericson Dam in north-central Nebraska remains at high risk of failing as the Cedar River continues to rise, according to a report by the NWS.

So far, 38 locations in five states across the Midwest have set new flood crests, said senior meteorologist Jon Erdman, noting that the flooding that is a result of recent heavy rains and snowmelt will continue through the weekend.

As of Friday evening, emergencies had been declared by the governors of three states: Nebraska, Iowa and Wisconsin.


Just before 11 a.m. Thursday, the residents of Hornick in western Iowa were ordered to evacuate immediately because of a levee breach on the West Fork of the Little Sioux River.

"They gave us about 10 minutes, so you just grab the things you need the most," Catie Newman told the Des Moines Register.

Sheriff's deputies and firefighters went door-to-door warning the residents, the Sioux City Journal reported.

Newman, who is disaster response coordinator for the Iowa United Methodist Church and pastor of churches in Hornick and Salix, said tree branches and chunks of ice were floating across the plains around the town of about 200 people about 30 miles southeast of Sioux City. "Many of the fields are filled with water as far as the eye can see," she said.

"Really all we can do right now is take care of one another," Newman told the Register from the Salix church where she planned to stay Thursday night.

To the north of Hornick, the town of Moville was also inundated by floodwaters.

Flooding closed several highways, including the closure Thursday of Interstate 680 near Council Bluffs and a portion of Interstate 29, the Associated Press reported.

Several breached levees prompted evacuations in Missouri Valley, the AP also reported. Parts of the city were already underwater.


Five firefighters and two rescue divers were taken to a hospital Friday with signs of hypothermia after two boats in which they were conducting rescues capsized in Dodge County near the Elkhorn River. One firefighter, who may have been in the frigid water for more than an hour, is in critical condition, the Omaha World-Herald reported. 

Plattsmouth residents were told to restrict water use after the Plattsmouth Water Treatment Plant was inundated by rising floodwaters from the Missouri River. The plant was shut down and a water emergency declared, WOWT-TV reported.

On Friday, an evacuation order for one-third of the 24,000 residents in Norfolk was lifted; a day earlier, the city's levee system "neared its top," city officials said. One person was reported missing after their car was swept away, News Channel Nebraska reported.

Ten people were trapped on Channel Road in Norfolk, and rescue crews had to use a boat to reach one home surrounded by flood water, KETV reported. Floodwaters caused a bridge to collapse on Highway 13 in nearby Hadar, Nebraska, News Channel Nebraska also said.

Earlier Thursday, people were rescued from cabins along the Platte River in Yutan.

A hospital and nursing home were evacuated in Genoa after the Loup River overtopped an intake structure at the the Loup Power Division, News Channel Nebraska reported.

The Nebraska State Patrol was assisting with evacuations but had trouble accessing the community, News Channel Nebraska reported. The station also notes there are "no safe evacuation routes."

Residents along the Platte River from Schuyler to Ashland were told to evacuate at 11 a.m., the Omaha World-Herald reported. The NWS warned that a surge of water was moving down the river because of an ice jam breakup.

"Anyone living near the Platte or in the floodplain needs to get out before it’s too late," Dustin Wilcox, a spokesman for the Nebraska Association of Natural Resources Districts, told the World-Herald.

Highways 30 and 36 were closed by flooding in Washington and Douglas counties, the Washington County Sheriff's Office said. Water rescues were taking place in Arlington, Blair, Fort Calhoun and Kennard, the sheriff's office said.

"Things are moving and changing at a rapid pace," Douglas County Commissioner Mary Ann Borgeson told reporters Friday. "We need you to follow instructions and evacuate when we say you need to evacuate."


Floodwaters forced the closure of Interstate 29 Friday from Rockport to the Iowa state line. 

Officials in Holt County in northwest Missouri recommended that people living in low-lying areas near the Missouri River evacuate. Dozens of roads were closed in that corner of the state because of flooding.

A woman who fell into the swift-moving Missouri River in Bridgeton Wednesday night had to cling to the roots of a tree until rescuers could pull her from the 40-degree water, the St. Louis Post Dispatch reported. The woman, who was not identified, was walking her dog when she slipped off a bank and couldn't climb back up. She was in the water for about 35 minutes, the report said.

"It was pretty miraculous she held on the way she did," Assistant Chief Jim Usry of the Pattonville Fire Protection District said.


In southwestern Wisconsin, many roads in the town of Darlington were cut off by floodwaters on Friday. Homes and businesses took on water as the Pecatonica River rose to its highest level since 1993, according to WMTV.

"We’re all kind of nervous for what’s going to happen," Susanne Chambers, owner of the Pizza Pantry, told WMTV. "It’s kind of a scary situation for us – we just don’t know what we have to do next."

Some Brown County residents, including some of the 14,000 living in the village of Bellevue, were ordered to evacuate overnight as floodwaters along the East River continued to rise, according to NBC26.


An estimated 1,000 residents at a mobile home park in Jordan were urged to evacuate late Thursday after an ice jam on Sand Creek caused the creek to overflow its banks and onto the property, reported. The evacuation was voluntary, authorities told the station, noting that there is no drowning risk involved.

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