Flood notes: Missouri River levels remain high

Flood notes: Missouri River levels remain high
The sun begins to set on the Missouri River floodwaters west of Hamburg, Iowa, on Sunday. RYAN SODERLIN/THE WORLD-HERALD

The Missouri River at Rulo, Nebraska, set a record for high water Wednesday and has started to drop.

The National Weather Service said the river had reached 28.12 feet on Wednesday. That is above the record of 27.3 feet set June 27, 2011.

At 7 a.m. Thursday, the river depth at Rulo was 27.81 feet. The river isn’t expected to fall below 17-foot flood stage until sometime in April, according to the weather service forecast.

North of Rulo, the city of Brownville reported a Missouri River depth of 42.23 feet at 6:15 a.m. That’s nearly 8 feet above flood stage. The river isn’t expected to return to its banks until sometime next month.

At Omaha, the Missouri River had fallen to 32.18 feet as of 6:15 a.m. The weather service expects it fall below the 29-foot flood stage by Saturday night.

Plattsmouth, where flood stage is 26 feet, showed a depth of 34.25 Thursday morning. Blair reported 28.87 feet, just over 2 feet above flood stage.

Offers of help for Nebraska farmers and ranchers pour in; hay is No. 1 need

Calls offering assistance for flooded farmers and ranchers are outpacing requests for help, the director of the Nebraska Department of Agriculture said Thursday.

People around the country have been volunteering feed, labor and transportation.

Food such as hay for livestock continues to be the No. 1 need, Steve Wellman said in a conference call with Jim Macy, director of the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality.

The Department of Agriculture has a hotline for taking donations and receiving requests. Some transportation requirements have been eased to facilitate needed deliveries.

“One third of the phone calls are asking for need, two thirds have been offers to provide assistance of some sort,” Wellman said.

Hay donations have been coming in from states as far away as Pennsylvania and North Carolina, but it hasn’t been easy to keep up with the demand in some areas.

“As fast as the hay is coming in, it’s going out,’’ said Phil Robles, who works for the Aurora Cooperative.

The coop is working with Heartland Livestock Aid, which has set up drop-off sites in hard-hit areas around the state. They’re hoping that will make it easier to reach the most needy or those still cut off due to impassable roads.

Wet hay will rot quickly as the weather warms. Some has been washed away completely.

On Wednesday, a Chinook helicopter was used to drop huge, round bales of hay to cattle stranded in Colfax County.

The Guard’s last aerial hay bale drop was during the blizzard of 1949. In 1979, the Guard via 18-wheeler hauled 500 tons of needed hay.

”It’s new territory for us,” said Major Gen. Daryl Bohac, the head of the Nebraska National Guard.

Individuals are stepping up to share hay on their own, too.

Hay is a precious commodity this time of year.

Cattle won’t be able to go to pasture to eat grass for 45 to 50 more days. Drought in Missouri and the fires in California has trimmed supplies.

Some areas are desperate, including the Elkhorn and the Genoa-Albion areas. Smaller square bales are especially needed in the Elkhorn area.

Central Plains Milling, with operations in Howells and Columbus, is helping with the effort while still supplying feed to producers. With funds donated to its pay-it-forward account, it is providing farmers and ranchers with any equipment, supplements or feed they might need.

Calls for fencing supplies are starting to grow.

“This isn’t going to be a short-term need,’’ Central Plains’ Janessa Updike said. “It’s going to be a while.’’

Levi Wielenga, the operations manager for another group, North Dakota-based Farm Rescue, said he’s received about 400 emails the past few days from people who want to help or those who need assistance. It’s been crazy, he says.

“Your guys are in a world of hurt,’’ he said.

Emergency officials shift focus to long-term recovery

LINCOLN — As the scope of damage continues to emerge from the floodwaters, Nebraska emergency officials told state lawmakers Thursday that they are shifting their focus from urgent response to long-term recovery.

“A lot of work is left to be done,” said Bryan Tuma, the assistant director of the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency.

Tuma said Gov. Pete Ricketts met with officials Thursday morning to talk about next steps. They discussed strategies for putting resources to work in the least amount of time and getting infrastructure rebuilt in the most efficient manner.

One resource used for the immediate response has been the governor’s emergency fund. Major Gen. Daryl Bohac, Nebraska’s adjutant general, said efforts so far have used $1.69 million of the fund, which had $3.9 million in it before last week’s flooding.

As of Thursday morning, Tuma said, housing and roads remain the most critical areas of concern. Seven Red Cross shelters remain open, with a dwindling population at each.

But Bohac said many people have left the shelters to stay with family and friends, not to return home. The Red Cross and state officials are starting to look at longer-term housing options for people.

Tuma reported the 383 miles of state highways were closed and 22 state highway bridges were damaged. Assessment of county roads and bridges remains to be completed because officials have not been able to get access to them.

In the meantime, Bohac urged Nebraskans to continue calling the state’s emergency operations center with information, questions and requests for help.

“If we don’t know about about it, we can’t do anything about it,” he said.

He said citizens can call 402-817-1551 to reach the center, which continues to operate 24 hours a day with representatives from a number of different agencies available. More recently, he said, the center has added behavioral health resources.

Bohac also urged people to have patience with the pace of recovery and to be kind to others. Fixing or replacing roads and bridges, in particular, will take time.

Over the next several days and weeks, Tuma said, multi-agency resource centers will be set up so that people eligible for individual assistance from the federal government can get help. Some of the centers may pop up for a few days in one town, then again in another location.

Bohac said he expects Federal Emergency Management Agency workers will be going door to door in affected areas to assess the damage. That effort could begin next week.

Forty-four different nonprofit groups from across the nation are heading to Nebraska to help with recovery, and a number of local groups also are helping, Tuma said. They are offering to do everything from distribute food to mucking out basements.

Several private businesses also have offered donations and services through the Nebraska Preparedness Partnership.

At least 15 bridges in state have been damaged or washed out

At least 15 bridges on the state highway system have washed out or have been damaged, the Nebraska Department of Transportation said Thursday:

· Highway 11 just south of Butte

· Highway 12 Mormon canal west of Niobrara

· Highway 12 Niobrara River west of Niobrara

· Highway 13 East of Hadar

· Highway 15: Two bridges resulting in a closure from Linwood Spur to south of Schuyler

· Highway 14: Two bridges resulting in a closure from the junction of Highway 92 to Albion

· Highway 39 just south of Genoa

· Highway 57 south of Stanton

· Highway 94 truss bridge east of Pender

· Highway 116 South of Dixon

· Highway 121 south of Yankton

· Highway 275 and West Center Road

· Highway 281 just south of Spencer

Truckers are advised to take only marked detours and avoid county roads in these areas. Many of the county roads are unable to support semitrailer truck traffic, officials said.

The department will provide detours for each bridge that has either been washed out or requires repair through 511.nebraska.gov.

Waiver granted for taxpayers affected by flooding

Nebraska taxpayers who have been directly affected and who are unable to file timely tax returns have been granted a waiver, state officials said Thursday.

Tax Commissioner Tony Fulton has granted the waiver of penalties and interest for late returns or payments of taxes that are due on or after March 15 through April 14 so long as the returns are filed and payments made by April 15.

Department officials will work with businesses and individuals regarding any tax returns and taxes due, including sales tax returns, if they have no access to their computer, files or tax records. For further information, call 800-742-7474 (in Nebraska and Iowa) or 402-471-5729, or visit the department’s website.

Free legal help available

Free legal help is available for low-income flood survivors in Nebraska through Nebraska Legal Aid’s Disaster Relief Project.

It’s crucial that people know their legal rights and the benefits and resources available to them, the group said.

The free assistance is available through both online resources and a network of trained volunteer lawyers across Nebraska.

People affected by flooding in the state can go to www.disaster.legalaidofnebraska.org for more information.

Lincoln lifts water restrictions

Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler on Wednesday lifted the mandatory water restrictions imposed Sunday because of flood damage at the city’s water facilities at the Platte River.

He also urged residents and businesses to continue to voluntarily conserve water as work continues to repair the water infrastructure.

All residents and businesses are asked to reduce water consumption by 25 percent. Car washes will be allowed to reopen at 8 a.m. Thursday.

Beutler said wells in the north wellfields have begun production and capacity has risen from 32 to 40 million gallons per day.

Valley, Waterloo start cleanup with volunteers

Floodwaters have mostly receded in the city of Valley, according to City Councilwoman Cindy Grove, who also heads the Valley Days Foundation. Roads and property are damaged, but hundreds of volunteers are helping out.

Still, she said there’s currently a list of about 50 people who have requested help cleaning up that aren’t able to do it on their own.

“We’re matching up volunteers with people who need help,” she said. “We also have a big group of people who have come up to town and are just going around helping people they see.”

The City of Valley has placed dumpsters along West Street, Mayne Street, Pine Street, East Street and Sunset Circle and is accepting larger items such as appliances at the city yard at 210 N. Locus St.

“They’re getting full so fast that we can’t keep them empty,” Grove said.

Grove is helping collect supplies at the United Faith Community Church Campus building at 921 S. Mayne St.

Volunteers are compiling pantry boxes, cleaning supply buckets and personal hygiene bundles. Grove said they are still in need of plastic containers, boxes and other moving supplies for those that have to leave home.

Those hoping to volunteer can find more information on the City of Valley’s Facebook page or by emailing cityvalleyne@gmail.com.

“If you’re not coming to volunteer or you don’t live here, keep your traffic in town to a minimum,” Grove asked. “We have so many people that are surveying the damage and cleaning up that we don’t need all the onlookers.”

In Waterloo, Assistant Fire Chief Travis Harlow said interior drainage has been pumped out and that the levee did not break.

Neighboring communities, including Riverside Lakes, are still trapped, waiting for crews to build a road in and out of the neighborhood.

Many members of the Waterloo community, he said, are helping their neighbors in Valley.

Mobile lab will test private well water in three Nebraska communities

A mobile lab will stop in three Nebraska locations — Fremont, Norfolk and Verdigre — this week to provide free water testing for private well owners.

Flooded private wells or wells suspected of being impacted by flooding may need testing to ensure that well water is safe. Cloudiness or change in taste or smell are signs of possible contamination. However, residents are encouraged to test their well water if there is any indication that the water supply has been breached by floodwaters, even when there are no noticeable changes in taste or smell.

To have water tested at the mobile lab, residents should first pick up a free testing kit from the mobile lab during operating hours or from one of three area health departments:

» Three Rivers Public Health Department, 2400 N. Lincoln St., Fremont

» Elkhorn Logan Valley Public Health Department, 2104 21st Circle, Wisner

» North Central District Health Department, 422 East Douglas St., O’Neill

Using the kit, collect a water sample from the private well and take it to the mobile lab for testing.

Mobile lab locations and hours:

Fremont, 2400 N. Lincoln St.: Thursday, 2:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. and Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.

Norfolk, 302 W. Phillip Ave.: Friday, 2:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. and Saturday, 7:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.

Verdigre,  301 S. Main St.: Saturday, 2:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., and Sunday, 7:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.

The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services is partnering with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to offer this service.

Spencer Dam’s collapse raises questions about what went wrong with 92-year-old structure

LINCOLN — Only recently had Kenny Angel moved back to where he and his large family had grown up, in a home just below the now 92-year-old Spencer Dam.

He was described as the “mountain man” of the family. He loved the outdoors and the swift-flowing Niobrara River, which ran through the dam and by a bar/bait shop that his parents had founded back in 1967.

But on March 13, as forecasters warned of a mix of heavy rain and snow on the way, the 71-year-old expressed concerns to his youngest brother — how much water is flowing down to the dam? Are there ice jams upriver holding back flows?

Early the next morning, the 29-foot-high concrete and earthen dam gave way, unleashing an 11-foot wall of water, mixed with thick blocks of ice and sand, that swept away Angel’s home, leaving behind a new river channel where the home, the bar, a handful of motor homes and several vehicles once stood.

Angel’s body is still missing amid the fields of ice and debris carried downstream, despite a weeklong search. His family maintains that Kenny might have survived if given more warning by the operators of the dam, the Nebraska Public Power District.

“I am certain he was not given enough time to evacuate,” said Angel’s 49-year-old brother, Scott, who lives nearby. “I know he didn’t deserve to die like this.”

That opinion was disputed by an official with NPPD, which was in the process of transferring the dam and its water rights to a coalition of natural resources districts in the area.

Mark Becker, spokesman for the power district, and Mick Spencer, who overseas the district’s hydro-electric plants, said that two workers were at Spencer Dam on the night of March 13-14, monitoring the rising water amid a blizzard that local residents said left 3-4 inches of snow on the ground, preceded by 2 inches of rain.

The workers, Spencer said, had opened some of the five “stop-log” gates on the dam, per emergency procedure when water levels are high, but were blocked from removing more because beams that held the gates in place were frozen. He said that when workers realized that water was overtopping the earthen portion of the dam, they evacuated.

The two employees immediately drove across the U.S. 281 bridge over the Niobrara below the dam to Kenny Angel’s house to warn him. The workers then jumped in their pickup and fled. The dam collapsed shortly afterwards, about 5:30 a.m.

“They told him to get out now,” Becker said. “I don’t think we’ll ever know why he didn’t.”

Said Spencer, “He got as much warning as our folks had. They warned him as soon as they knew the dam was in peril.”

Given the presumed fatality and the property damage, the collapse may end up in court. The situation raises several questions about the integrity of the dam, which was built in 1927 and still, from time to time, was used to generate electricity. Was it regularly maintained? What steps, if any, were taken as the water behind it rose? Were there safety concerns? Any emergency plans? An emergency spillway?

Becker, of NPPD, emphasized that the dam was not designed as a “flood control” structure, but one by which the water level in the reservoir would be controlled to facilitate the generation of electricity. Spencer Dam had no emergency spillway, to guide water around the dam when water levels are high, unlike the smaller, flood-control dams around Omaha and Lincoln.

State records indicate that the Spencer Dam was last inspected in April 2018, and the state rated it in “fair” condition, then noted “deficiencies exist which could lead to dam failure during rare, extreme storm events.”

Spencer characterized the deficiencies as mostly minor except one, a seepage found downstream of the dam. He said monitoring devices were in place to ensure that seepage “through the earthen portion of the dam” did not compromise the integrity of the structure.

He said he had no concerns that the dam would fail.

On Thursday, the website for the State Department of Natural Resources, which monitors the safety of such dams, indicated that dam had been “breached — natural causes.”

But a retired inspector for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who used to inspect Spencer Dam back in the 1970s, said that concerns about the dam existed even back then.

The retiree, who spoke on condition that his name not be used, said that the vast majority of the 3,700-foot dam was of earthen construction, and earthen dams are not designed to last more than 50-60 years without “reinforcement.” He said he recommended extending the concrete portion of the dam, adding that some of his colleagues were fearful of a “catastrophic failure.” The reservoir behind the dam also had a lot of silt and debris in it, he said, which can work to deteriorate a dam’s structure.

He said earthen dams, with proper maintenance and reinforcement, can stand even when overtopped with water.

Both Spencer and Becker, the NPPD officials, said Thursday they were not aware of any recommendations to extend the concrete to more of the earthen portion of the dam. Spencer Dam, according to Spencer, received regular maintenance, and in 2015, two so-called “toe drains” were installed to drain water coming through the dam. They were working last week, he said.

They also said that silt would just reduce the water that the dam could store.

Becker said that teams of NPPD engineers and officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates dams on the nearby Missouri River, have visited Spencer Dam since the collapse and are investigating the cause. Huge ice chunks tore a hole in the brick-and-motor powerhouse, and photographs show a wide gap in the earthen portion of the dam’s southern end — where water had overtopped the dam — as well as damage to the concrete spillway area.

“It was an unprecedented amount of water, compounded by large pieces of floating ice,” Becker said. “I’ve seen pictures (of ice) as large as cars. This was all moving downstream.”

Scott Angel said that when he finally could see the dam on the morning it collapsed, every man-made structure below Spencer Dam had been washed away, to be replaced by a new river channel.

“The large section of dike that went out was directly west of my brother’s house,” he said. “This wave of water and pieces of ice as big as my pickup went right through it.”

The Angel family was part of the landscape at the Spencer Dam for more than a half century.

Don and June Angel opened a bar and bait shop alongside the spillway in 1967, and raised eight kids there. The bar and home were near the spillway, where the tumbling waters drew scores of fishermen each spring for the massive catfish blocked from moving upstream by the dam.

Don so loved the spot that he carved his name into the nearby bluff by removing trees to create the letters “A-N-G-E-L,” 250-feet high, on a hillside known as “Angel’s Hill.”

When a tornado destroyed the Angels’s bar in 1996, three of Don and June’s children — Kenny, Scott and Coral — rebuilt. The new structure was made of hay bales, and the new bar, called “Angel’s Straw-Bale Saloon,” was a local gathering place for residents of Spencer, O’Neill and Bristow. A summer motorcycle rally drew up to 1,500, Scott Angel said.

He said the family began searching for Kenny soon after the dam collapsed, but the search was complicated by the huge fields of ice left behind. A National Guard helicopter was supposed to fly over the area on Thursday, after being unable to fly over earlier due to rescue missions elsewhere.

Kenny and his wife, Linda, had recently moved back to the family home after living in Alvo, east of Lincoln, Scott Angel said. They operate a cellphone tower site maintenance service, and have four grown children.

He was happy to be back “to his roots,” his brother said. Despite living beneath an aging dam, Scott Angel said the family didn’t worry that it would someday fall apart.

“We just had our lives and our home and our business below the dam,” he said.

Fremont chicken plant that will supply Costco avoided major flood damage

The Fremont chicken processing plant that will serve Costco stores avoided major damage from last week’s floodwaters.

The area around the plant, located in the south part of Fremont just north of the Platte River, had water on the property, but the water didn’t get into any of the buildings.

“It kind of looked like each building was an island,” said Jessica Kolterman, a spokeswoman for Lincoln Premium Poultry, the business that is managing the plant for Costco.

The plant has been under construction since 2017, and is not yet fully operational. The seed mill, hatchery and processing facility were built on the 500-year floodplain, which is one reason they escaped damage.

In addition, multiple holding ponds on the property, designed to hold large rains, helped reign in historic flooding.

One pond held 90 acre-feet of water — more than 29 million gallons.

“If we hadn’t had those ponds, that water would have probably flowed into the community,” Kolterman said.

Fremont City Administrator Brian Newton agreed that those were an asset to the town.

“It holds water and it releases it slowly afterward,” he said. “That’s the beauty of them.”

None of the more than 100 family chicken farms contracted with the facility were damaged by floodwaters, Kolterman said. Damaged roads posed challenges for getting feed to those farmers or for employees being able to get to work, Kolterman said, but that issue has largely subsided.

“Fortunately for us, this historic event occurred when we were still in the infancy stages of managing our flock with our farmers,” she said.

Crews are working on pumping out additional water that hasn’t already receded, and construction should resume shortly. Workers also have helped out with evacuations, cleanup efforts and volunteering at shelters.

“We are doing everything we can to support our neighbors,” Kolterman said. “We are so proud of our team for the way they’ve responded to this and the caring concern they’ve shown our community.”

Newton said many employees from the industrial companies in the area have worked together to clear area roads. It’s important for the community to get back to normal operations, he said, because of the business and economic impacts.

“It’s a team effort,” he said.

How to help those affected by the flooding