Small Towns In Nebraska Struggle To Deal With Historic Flooding

Mar 18, 2019
Originally published on March 18, 2019 1:29 pm
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Small towns in the Midwest are trying to dry out after flooding that hasn't been seen there in decades. A kind of storm meteorologists called a bomb cyclone swept across Wisconsin, Iowa, and Nebraska last week. Blizzard conditions, hurricane winds and heavy rain led officials to declare states of emergency. Thousands of people were forced to evacuate their homes. Here's Nebraska State Senator Tom Briese.


TOM BRIESE: I think events like this can be the death knell of some small communities in our state. And yes, the future of these communities does hang in the balance after an event like this.

MARTIN: Bill Kelly is a reporter from our member station NET in Nebraska. He's been out in some of the hardest-hit areas. Bill, it is still early March. It's still technically winter. So how'd this go from a winter storm to a flood so fast?

BILL KELLY, BYLINE: You know, it's an amazing set of circumstances. And it shouldn't be surprising that there are floods in Nebraska. We've got more rivers than any other state in the Union, 80,000 miles of rivers. What happened was, first we had an unprecedented amount of snow this winter. Then the bomb cyclone you referred to added even more snow in parts of the state. Then there were these heavy rains that melts all that snow, the ice on the rivers, and all these rivers and streams that head down into the Platte River and ultimately into the Missouri all flooded at once. We're used to flooding here and there. But to have everything flood at once was what really made this unprecedented. And hundreds of towns in that state, almost a 250-mile stretch, ended up being affected.

MARTIN: This dramatic temperature change really changed things quickly. So you've been out in the flooded areas. What have you seen?

KELLY: I visited the North Central Nebraska. And it's pretty difficult to get from point A to point B. Right now the highways have been damaged. Bridges are out, and so short drives take a long time. Then once you get into these towns, like St. Edward, the streets are lined with household goods on the curb. It's waterlogged. It's mud. Everybody has generators and pumps going. I spoke to the owner of the Beaver Creek Inn. It's Beaver Creek that flooded, in this case, in St. Edward. Beth Zarnick (ph) told us what it was like to go through this experience.

BETH ZARNICK: It's heartbreaking 'cause there's friends of mine, they've lost their homes. They have nowhere to go. And I'm just fortunate that I never lost my home. My heart goes out to all them. But it's great that you have friends and family that pull together, and they come in and just start helping you out.

KELLY: And Beth Zarnick is, like a lot of the business owners there - there are 31 businesses in town. They were all damaged. And a whole host of homes may end up needing to be demolished there in St. Edward, and people may not have an opportunity to get back to them.

MARTIN: Right. We heard that state senator say that this can be, in his words, the death knell for small towns, many of whom are already struggling. I mean, how do they begin the recovery? What needs to happen first?

KELLY: You know, the plan isn't - it won't be in place for a while. First they're going to be assessing the damage. I think what really concerns most of the people we talked with is, I mentioned the infrastructure problems - the bridges and the roads. That's going to be the state of Nebraska's first set of expenditures and that first round of federal emergency funds. And there are some real questions as to how much money would end up being made available to homeowners and businesses who are going to be on the edge and whether some of them are going to get any kind of aid or low-interest loans. So it's uncertain at this point.

MARTIN: Bill Kelly of NET Nebraska Radio joining us from Lincoln, Neb.

Bill, thanks so much for sharing your reporting on this. We appreciate it.

KELLY: Thank you, Rachel.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Nebraska does not have the most miles of rivers of any state in the union, as is said in this report. While it has about 80,000 miles of rivers, Alaska has 365,000 miles, according to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, and several other states also have more than 80,000.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.