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Stuck in the Flood

A full crop season after a perfect storm of snow, rain, and freezing conditions swept through the Plains on March 12-14, 2019, farmers and ranchers in Nebraska, South Dakota, Iowa, and Missouri continue to deal with the aftermath. 

The storm, which was called a bomb cyclone, brought a massive, moisture-filled low-pressure system across the Plains, with Nebraska caught square in the crosshairs. Blizzard conditions brought snow to western Nebraska. For example, the communities of Scottsbluff and Chadron received 12 and 17 inches, respectively. Rainfall totals during the same storm event included 4 inches in Dannebrog and 2.27 inches in Norfolk, with much of the state receiving varying amounts of rain.

Regina Bird, meteorologist at NTV television in Kearney, Nebraska, explains that precipitation from the bomb cyclone fell on frozen ground and was followed by torrential rains that melted the snow. With no ability to soak into frozen ground, water poured into rivers and low-lying areas, Bird says.

State of Nebraska

In Nebraska, the Platte, Niobrara, Elkhorn, and Loup rivers flooded, wreaking havoc and depositing silt and debris on thousands of acres of cropland and pastures in the midsection of the Cornhusker State alone. The Nebraska Department of Agriculture says $440 million dollars in crops were lost. That figure doesn’t account for damage to cropland or the cleanup costs of hauling away rotting grain, sand, and scattered personal belongings of upriver flood victims.

The department estimates $400 million in cattle inventory was lost to flooding or freezing temperatures. 

Flooding forced road closures, further crippling the region for months. High water impacted 2,000 miles of Nebraska’s state roads. Once water receded, 200 miles of pavement required repair. Nearly 30 state bridges were closed, adding more than an hour to some commutes.

At the state level, Nebraska infrastructure has rebounded quickly, at the price of $153 million dollars. Less than a mile of road is still closed, explains Nebraska DOT spokesperson Jeni Campana. A majority of the necessary pavement repairs were complete within 90 days of the flood events.

Perhaps most notably, two temporary bridges were opened in August along key routes for rural and agricultural communities near Niobrara and Spencer. Campana says these temporary solutions are helping citizens get back to normal life, although permanent solutions aren’t likely to be in place until late 2020.

“Those areas are both very agriculture-based,” explains Campana. “For us to be able to restore the roadways, they are very, very excited about that, and they’re looking forward, obviously, to having a permanent solution, but just being able to restore connectivity has been very huge for them.”

Reflecting on the last six months, she adds, “In fairly short order, we’ve been able to restore a lot of roads back to where they were to get people moving again.”

Flooded four lanes of Nebraska highways
Photo credit: Scott Olson

However, counties and rural communities devastated by the floods don’t have the same resources to bounce back. At the county level, there aren’t reserves for damage of this magnitude or even enough to cover the 15% match required for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

A count of washed-out county bridges or flooded rural road miles isn’t available, but there’s no shortage of stories. Larry Dix, executive director for the Nebraska Association of County Officials, says 81 of the state’s 93 counties were declared a natural disaster area this spring. 

“Every one of those 81 counties had significant road damage,” Dix explains. “I’m hearing from some of the counties that it could be years before they’ll get their infrastructure back to where it was before the flood.”

In Cherry County, six months after the floods, there is still water over a number of county roads. There are concerns the water won’t go down before a freeze comes and the water turns to ice. The water must recede before damage can be assessed, repairs can be made, and normal traffic can resume.

“In Boyd County, there was an old bridge that spanned a pretty good-size river. They are thinking it could be four or five years before they’ll ever really be able to build up enough money to replace that bridge,” Dix continues.

While these roads and bridges don’t normally carry the volume of traffic that state roads see, they’re critical for farmers, ranchers, and agribusinesses. “Just the other day, I heard one of the counties in the Sandhills was able to repair a road that would allow a rancher to no longer travel 56 miles to get his children to school,” Dix says. “The 56-mile commute came down to a 7-mile commute.”

Nebraska-Precip-Departure-March-Sept-2019
Iowa Environmental Mesonet

The floods also compromised county roads that were never under water. Due to detours, these roads have seen higher volumes and heavier vehicles than they were designed for. That means they require additional resources to keep the traffic flowing, Dix says.

That’s hard to manage when the roads are wet. In fact, gravel roads especially are more prone to damage from heavy loads after rain. According to the Iowa Environmental Mesonet, several Nebraska counties have seen more than 20 inches of rain above average since March.

Dix says this hasn’t given roads the chance to dry out. “It’s just a storm that keeps on giving – for month after month after month this year.”

Nebraska farmer Curtis Rohrich leans on his white pickup truck in front of a corn field on his farm
Photo Credit: Bill Spiegel

Curtis Rohrich - Wood River, Nebraska

With Thanksgiving on the horizon, Curtis Rohrich is simply grateful to have corn and soybean crops to harvest. Four hundred acres of the third-generation farmer’s irrigated cropland were covered in water when the nearby Wood River flooded twice in 2019 – first after the bomb cyclone in March and again in July.

Rohrich’s farm sits between Nebraska Highway 30 and Wood River. In March, water froze at night, and by noon the next morning, ice would thaw, and huge flows of water washed roadbeds and farm fields away. The storm occurred so suddenly that Nebraskans didn’t have time to prepare.

Despite inches of water depositing silt and crop residue on their fields, the corn and soybeans will be productive. Rohrich acted quickly to pile the debris, spreading as much as he could with a manure spreader prior to planting. He wasn’t prepared for 2 feet of murky silt under piles of residue. 

What couldn’t be spread before planting will be dealt with after harvest. Rohrich typically plants corn by April 15, but flooding delayed planting a week. Rohrich knows he was fortunate to get the crop planted in a timely manner; many Nebraskans planted corn and soybeans late, if at all.

Given the hand Mother Nature dealt the area’s farmers, corn and soybeans both look good, but it won’t be a bumper crop.

“I’m kind of prepared for an average to below-average yield this year,” he says.

“[Nebraska Governor Pete] Ricketts worked very well with the Trump administration at getting the state of Nebraska declared an emergency in very fast fashion. It was like the speed of light compared with how politics normally works,” he says.

Rohrich has high praise for Hall County, the Nebraska Farm Service Agency, and Natural Resource Conservation District, and the local Natural Resources District. Federal programs designed to help producers are under-funded, and most producers could not wait weeks or months for programs to be implemented.  

Rohrich is empathetic to those who had it much worse. “Those poor guys who raise cattle went through a terrible winter calving this year. A lot of them were still physically spent by the time this water came, and then they lose some of their herd,” he says.

Between the natural disasters, trade wars, and Renewable Fuels Standard waivers that dropped corn and soybean prices, Rohrich is ready for 2019 to end. 

“I’m just waiting for Thanksgiving to get here so it’s over. Then you know what you’ve got, you deal with what you’ve got, and you find a way to make it work,” he explains. “There won’t be any new tractors this year, but maybe we’ll be pleasantly surprised. 

“If Santa’s going to bring me something for Christmas, I want the USMC agreement to be signed, the trade war with China over, and all of a sudden the petroleum industry has to come back and find a way to use 1.25 billion gallons of ethanol that it didn’t use the last couple years. That’s all I want for Christmas,” says Rohrich, a past board member of the Nebraska Corn Growers. “That’s all I want for Christmas.”

Nebraska farmer Eugene Goering stands in a field of soybeans on his farm
Photo Credit: Bill Spiegel

Eugene Goering - Columbus, Nebraska

An average farmer driving through Platte County would not know that flooded waterways impacted thousands of acres of cropland and pasture earlier this year. 

Eugene Goering, who farms near Platte Center, gazes out over soybean fields that look better than average. Area seed corn producers are harvesting record yields, and field corn growers are anticipating big yields.

Still, Goering knows there are farmers and ranchers who continue to suffer dramatic losses. In northeast Nebraska, rising water from the Niobrara, Verdigris, and Elkhorn rivers – which dump into the Platte and Loup rivers – flooded low areas and simply stayed put for days, depositing tons of silt and debris in their wake.

Goering says a local contractor worked all summer bulldozing sand off a field that didn’t get planted this year. “There are hundreds of acres under 2 to 6 feet of sand, I’ve heard,” Goering says.

Livestock producers lost animals and pasture, Goering says. A neighbor of his reduced his cowherd because fences were destroyed, and sand deposits on the grass are 4 and 5 feet deep in places. It is one of several isolated cases where one farmer suffered dramatic financial losses due to the flooding, while some neighbors came through unscathed. 

Nebraska’s farmers and ranchers are historically resilient, he adds. 

“There’s a history of things going good and things going bad,” he says. The 1930s were marked by severe drought. Same for the 1950s. “So these floods are things that happen over and over with generations,” he says.

Throughout Platte County, road crews and road budgets are stretched, as the county tries to replace bridges and drainage tubes so that growers can bring in a fall harvest that, ironically, could be a bumper crop.

Almost on cue, a semi-truck full of seed corn buzzes down 370th Road in front of Goering’s fourth-generation homestead, which is less than 12 miles from where Monastery Road crosses Shell Creek. That’s where Columbus farmer James Wilke perished while answering a call to help a stranded motorist in March. The tractor Wilke was driving fell through the bridge and was engulfed by floodwaters. Wilke, sadly, drowned in the accident.

“That’s the real tragedy of this event,” Goering says

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