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Nebraska’s Floods: How They Happened

Rain, snow, and frozen soils combined to create the worst flood in the state’s history. 

Floods that have devastated Nebraska, causing untold billions of dollars of damage to the state, are the result of a once-in-a-lifetime series of weather events. 

The Bomb Cyclone of March 12-14 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 – and rainfall totals during the same storm event included 4 inches in Danenbrog and 2.27 inches in Norfolk (according to www.CocoRahs.org) 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. Torrential rains fell on western Nebraska after the blizzard, melting the snow. With no ability to soak into frozen ground, the water poured into rivers and low-lying areas. 

“That created a scary situation,” Bird says. 

By themselves, the rainfall totals weren’t record-breaking. However, the combination of all those factors – combined with how quickly the storm swept through the area – exacerbated the runoff. Subsequent flooding into riverways already filled with giant chunks of ice created ice jams along multiple rivers. These ice jams clogged up against bridge piers, levees, and roadways. The pressure from fast-moving water and massive ice blocks the size of dump trucks simply overwhelmed the man-made structures, causing widespread infrastructure damage. The photo above, courtesy of Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts, is of a bridge spanning the Niobrara River on Nebraska Highway 12 near Lynch. 

Ice jams along the Platte River are not unusual in the spring, but “…never this widespread and never to this extent,” she says. 

The Platte is a relatively shallow but wide body of water that drains some 90,000 square miles and stretches nearly 900 miles. Near Louisville, in eastern Nebraska, the Platte crested at 14.3 feet, beating the old record by nearly 2 feet. 

As of Sunday morning, record crests had occurred in more than 17 locations, with more expected by Tuesday, according to NEMA: “There’s no precedent for this,” Bird explains. “We’ve had record crests in many rivers, and some of these records date back to the 1900s," she adds. 

The Missouri River was expected to crest at 41 feet at Plattsmouth on Sunday, breaking the previous record (2011) by 4 feet. Record flooding is forecasted to continue into next weekend. Other records include:

  • The Missouri River is expected to crest at 30.2 feet at Nebraska City, today, breaking the previous record (2011) by 1.9 feet. Major flooding is forecasted to continue through Wednesday 3/20. 
  • The Missouri River is expected to crest at 47.5 feet on Tuesday, breaking the previous record (2011) by more than 1 foot. Record flooding is expected to continue through Thursday. 
  • The Platte River is expected to crest at 14.3 feet at Louisville, March 17 breaking the previous record (1960) by 1.9 feet. Major flooding is forecasted to continue through Monday 3/18. 
  • The Elkhorn River at Waterloo crested at 24.6 feet Saturday, breaking the previous record (1962) by 5.5 feet. Major flooding is expected to decrease to moderate flooding today. 

The record-breaking weather event has wreaked havoc on the state’s infrastructure. Throughout central and eastern Nebraska, roads are closed due to flooding and compromised roadways. As of Sunday evening, more than 40 state and federal highways were closed or restricted due to flooding damage. 

“We’ve seen a ton of road closures on state highways, but all the county roads in those affected areas are impacted, too,” she says. 

Road closures are due to flooding and damage. In many cases, parts of the roadbed and surface have washed away. That's having a dramatic effect on logistics. According to social media, roads surrounding the Cargill Ethanol Plant near Blair, Nebraska – just north of Omaha – are closed, meaning farmers cannot haul grain into the plant; and ethanol cannot be shipped out on rail due to railway closures. Meanwhile, cattle feeders in the area are unable to procure distillers grains from the ethanol plant. Several ag-related businesses are closed in the short term, including Valley Irrigation, in the town of Valley, Nebraska. 

Also, 25 communities have had full or partial evacuations, according to the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency. Water supplies in many communities along the Platte, Wood, and Niobrara rivers have been compromised. 

There has been untold damages to farms and ranches, with livestock mortalities, stranded livestock, eroded fields, and debris-laden fields. Farmsteads throughout central Nebraska are flooded or have flooded, but frankly it’s too soon to have any idea of the impact and loss Nebraska producers are facing. 

Midwest Flooding Report

What lies ahead

Although flooding in central Nebraska appears to be waning, problems downstream may just be beginning. Areas of Iowa and Missouri will receive the flood waters, Bird says. 

In a statement issued by the NEMA, the National Weather Service reports “…historic flooding continues [Sunday] across eastern Nebraska, resulting from heavy rain, snowmelt and ice jam break-ups.”

  • The NWS forecasts major flooding on the Missouri River near Brownville through noon on Wednesday, March 20. 
  • The NWS forecasts major flooding on the Elkhorn at Waterloo through Saturday, March 16. 
  • The NWS forecasts major flooding on Wood River near Alda through Monday, March 18.

How to help

There are many ways to help. Here are a few:

  • The Nebraska Department of Agriculture (NDA) has put together a list of disaster relief resources for Nebraska farmers and ranchers seeking assistance due to severe weather. This list includes information about NDA’s Hay and Forage Hotline and programs from the Farm Service Agency. 
  • In Dodge and Washington counties, Extension Educator Nathan Mueller is creating a list of producers who need help and those who are willing to donate. He may be contacted at nathan.mueller@unl.edu
  • The Nebraska Farm Bureau's Disaster Assistance Exchange accepts money donations and helps match donors of ag goods with those in need. 
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