And The Floods Came Nebraska 2019


KEN SIEMEK: Blizzard
warning Wednesday morning into Thursday evening in the
north-central, and far west. It will have an
impact on all of us. COMPUTER VOICE:
Moderate to major and possibly historic
flooding expected to develop. COMPUTER VOICE:
Move to higher ground now. Act quickly to
protect your life. SIEMEK:
It’s gonna get worse, because we’ve got some
tremendous amounts of rainfall, a real nightmare. (dramatic music) NARRATOR: When the
floods came to Nebraska, in the middle of March, it
seemed to happen all at once. But the waters
lingered into autumn. No one doubts this was the
worst, but by what measure? Families who lost homes?
The number rescued? Miles of ruined roads? Dollars
spent restoring crop land, or the vitality
of a main street. In this program, we’re
telling just a few of the stories of
towns overwhelmed and Nebraskans challenged
by a natural disaster like no other on
the Great Plains. So what happened that week
in 2019 when the floods came? NARRATOR:
The storm wasn’t a surprise. The National Weather
Service began to see an ominous
mix of meteorology. KEN SIEMEK: Bill,
one of the strongest, most complex weather
systems of the entire season is bearing down on Nebraska. It will have an
impact on all of us. DAVE PEARSON: It was a
very strong system. We’re seeing indications
that it was, perhaps, historically strong
for a lot of reasons; the amount of
moisture it contained, the pressure that it fell to. And, a lot of
indicators suggested that it intensified
very rapidly. SIEMEK: Show you
our storm system continuing to percolate over Colorado. That’s going to head towards
the east and northeast. Severe weather, blizzard
conditions across the region. Again, a real nightmare. COMPUTER VOICE: A
tight pressure gradient will bring strong winds to
the area Wednesday night and during the day Thursday. This mid-latitude cyclone
will bring strong winds and wintry precipitation
to the area. PEARSON: The term bomb
cyclone refers more to a term that isn’t within
the meteorological community. But, what does refers to is that the storm
strengthened very rapidly. NARRATOR: At the
Niobrara Valley Hospital in Lynch, the staff keeps an
eye on weather emergencies. Word of another
winter storm watch didn’t trigger any alarms. KELLY KALKOWSKI: It was raining. Really, I didn’t think anything
twice about it on the rain. The month of
February was probably one of the worst ones for snow. And that was the issue. It was cold and snowy. SCOTT ANGEL:
The weather itself that day
and that night seemed normal, because it was raining. And we’ve had spring rains. NARRATOR: The
Straw Bale Saloon became a popular
summertime hangout on the south side of
the Niobrara River. On this cold day in
March, owners Scott Angel and his brother Kenny talked about this winter storm
being a little strange. ANGEL:
It may seem normal to us, but there were other
things going on, because this water wasn’t
going in the ground. The ground was frozen hard and every bit of it that
hit the ground was gonna run down the ground until it hit
a creek or a river or pond. COMPUTER VOICE:
Causing minor flooding of both rural and urban roads. This situation will likely
become more widespread tonight into Wednesday
as rainfall increases in areal coverage
and intensity. NARRATOR: By
Tuesday afternoon, the weather service advised
streams could rise rapidly in 30 counties from South Dakota
to the border with Kansas. SIEMEK: In these
lighter green areas, these are flood warnings
that are already in effect for some of the area
rivers over eastern Nebraska. So again, this is just
gonna get worse because– EARL IMLER: We knew that none of
this was going to end well. NARRATOR: Earl Imler became the state’s coordinating
officer at the command center for the Nebraska Emergency
Management Agency. IMLER: We made the
decision to stand up the State Emergency
Operations Center, to bring in the emergency
support function coordinators. NARRATOR: Governor
Ricketts signed an emergency proclamation
putting the machinery of state government in motion. Photographer and storm
chaser, John Haxby, knew days earlier this
would be a busy week providing video documenting
snow, wind, rain, and floods. JOHN HAXBY:
It was about five, six in the morning, it
transitioned to snow. And then it was heavy, wet snow. And then we had 40
to 60 mile an hour wind gusts on top of that. So it hurt. It was painful to
be out in that. MIKE FLOOD: We are right off
the Kearney Exchange where we have wind gusts
up to 49 miles an hour. NARRATOR: As the
blowing snow made travel a treacherous risk,
barricades went up in stages along Interstate 80. Early in the morning on
Wednesday, the Weather Service sent out an unusually
strongly worded advisory. COMPUTER VOICE:
Moderate to major and possibly historic
flooding expected to develop. HAXBY: Wow, this is gonna
be historical flooding. You don’t hear
historical that often. SIEMEK: When
I say a rain event, look at the rain,
one to three inches of rain possible over
eastern Nebraska. With the frozen ground
and the snow melt, this is really gonna
cause some problems. DON HENERY:
The ground was frozen. We had a deep frost this year. And so, the water couldn’t
get absorbed into the ground. All the farm ponds
were iced over. The creeks were iced over. 911 DISPATCHER:
Knox County Service. MAX: Yes, this is Max at
Knox County Road Department. You do know the road is
closed up north on 531. 911 DISPATCHER: Okay you guys
are closing it completely? MAX: It is closed completely. HENERY: This one was
flooding everywhere. NARRATOR: Never before
had the Verdigre Creek been so high, seven feet higher
than any previous record. The mayor declared an emergency and evacuated the
entire village. MAYOR HOLLMAN: Hi,
this is Mayor Hollmann, I’m the mayor of Verdigre. We’re at a state
of emergency here. HENERY: The main street
of Verdigre was flooded. The north bridge going into
Verdigre was under water. The south bridge going
into Verdigre had water up to the bottom of it. 911: We are evacuating
the fire hall at this time. We do not have an incident
command spot at ready yet. HENERY: Nowhere in
this county was immune from this storm
that came through. NARRATOR: Nor was
Boyd County a safe place. The 170 people living
in Lynch, Nebraska tucked most of their homes between the Ponca Creek
and Whiskey Creek. The streams merge on
the east side of town. KALKOWSKI: They’ve come up
in the past, yeah. But, they’ve always
been contained and NARRATOR: Kelly Kalkowski
started getting nervous about how the rising water
was behaving this time. KALKOWSKI: This was gonna be
something that was gonna be different than what
we’ve had in the past. NARRATOR: He made the call to clear out the
hospital and get help. JIM McBRIDE:
I went to the hospital, and
the water was still comin’, so I called for mutual
aid from other towns to come help sandbag
and to help get, evacuate other people
throughout the town. NARRATOR: In town,
dozens of people scrambled to get belongings
above the water line that wouldn’t stop rising. McBRIDE: You could see the water
running across the roads. Every so often you
could see ice chunks sticking out of the water. And some of ’em were floating,
but some of ’em weren’t. NARRATOR: Back
at the hospital, they didn’t think they could
build a wall fast enough. McBRIDE: The water just kept
surrounding the hospital. It was getting deeper
and finally it got to point where the pay loaders
just started dumping sand just right where they could
and hoping that it’d save it. NARRATOR: The sandbags held. The water stayed out. KALKOWSKI: The hospital in
itself would’ve looked like it was an island, on
its own little island. RADIO ANNOUNCER:
102.9 KBRX, we got Officer Rachel Coleman in the
studios with us this morning. Good morning.
RACHEL COLEMAN: Good morning. RADIO ANNOUNCER:
I wish it was under better conditions, but it’s not. COLEMAN: No, it’s
terrible out there. We advise no travel,
no travel at this time. NARRATOR: Rain gauges in
Boyd and Knox County collected over two inches of
rain in over 24 hours. The Niobrara River,
frozen solid after weeks of arctic temperatures,
came to life. JASON LAMABRECT:
We saw the Niobrara River,
an abrupt rise happening. And we were scratching
our heads trying to figure out is that real? Is that backwater from ice? Is that really
something happening? SHERIFF CHUCK WREDE: The ice
started breaking up and it started moving down and all the ice that
wasn’t loose all come down and caught every bridge. NARRATOR: Mounds
of ice blocks covered the Highway 11 Bridge. It lifted a section of
the Stuart-Naper Bridge a quarter mile downstream. Since 1927, the Niobrara
River had filled the reservoir behind the Spencer Dam. The stream flow powered a
small hydroelectric plant. On this day, the metal
gates blocked the momentum of the winter’s worth of ice. It could take no more. (somber music) 911 DISPATCHER: Knox
County Sheriff’s Office. O’NEILL: I received a call
from the Spencer Dam here on the Niobrara River that
the dam has been compromised. It’s going over the doors. It’s busted through
a couple doors, and it’s going over the dyke. The dam is breaking. PEARSON: It did take time
to hear about it. And so, we relied on the
stream gauging network to really know that, wow,
something big was coming. SHERIFF WREDE: The guys at
the power plant said that the dam is completely gone. And they said there was water
running over the bridge. LAMABRECT: Then we realized
we’re not getting data anymore ’cause our river
gauge got ripped out. It took out our gauge
and the next gauge after that, kind of
just a big, massive wave of water rolling
through with ice chunks. IMLER:
We knew that at that point
that we were probably dealing with some forces that we
hadn’t dealt with before, as far as what mother
nature can throw at you. HENERY: They came in and woke
me up, said the Spencer Dam, we just got a call the
Spencer Dam has broke. And we need to figure
out what we gotta do. (phone ringing) DISPATCHER: Hey,
Jerry, this is Kendra down at the Sheriff’s
Office Communications Center. We’re calling everybody that
we can across the Niobrara. HENERY:
We put together a game plan. And the dispatcher, jailer
started calling everybody within a mile on each
side of the river. My thoughts were
if we could make it through this without
getting anybody killed, that’ll be my goal,
to not have anybody get killed in this mess. NARRATOR: But one person
had already been lost. The night before, Kenny Angel
stayed at the house next to the Straw Bale, just 1,500
feet southeast of the dam. ANGEL: About 10 after seven, a
deputy showed up from O’Neill. And about 20 after,
there was enough daylight that we could finally
look over there and see that the house
was completely gone. The bar was gone. There was nothing left. NARRATOR: An ice
cold lava floe spread out a mile wide,
taking out the saloon and Kenny’s house, slowly
lurching downstream. (ominous music) 911 DISPATCH: There was a
mile and a half wide, 15-foot-plus tall and growing
ice jam on the Niobrara River. NARRATOR: 20 miles
east of the dam, the Ruzicka Ranch
weathered a century of Nebraska’s worst weather. The night before,
they thought the worst was over, then news of the dam. ANTHONY RUZICKA: I mean, we got
out of here at the last second. I mean, a minute to another
second, second, another minute, we probably would’ve drowned. WILLARD RUZICKA: We just run. We had so many things
that we needed to do. But, you just run. ANTHONY RUZICKA: I got to
the top of the hill over there, I turned around and looked back. It looked like an
ocean down here. And I just started bawling. I mean, I just started bawling. I sat there for quite a while. I didn’t know what to do. I was so shocked. WILLARD:
Yeah, we’ll figure it out. ANTHONY: I don’t know, we’ll
figure it out though. WILLARD: I’m not giving up. WOMAN: No.
LADY: No. WOMAN: We’re too–
WILLARD: We’re not giving up. CARRIE PITZER: It looked
like a war zone. When you have giant
ice that’s flowing through houses and
left mud and debris. 911 DISPATCH: You could
send the page out now that the ice jam and the current is moving towards Niobrara now. PITZER: It took seven
hours for the water from the Spencer
Dam to hit Niobrara. And when it hit, we didn’t
know if anything was going to be salvageable in the
community of Niobrara. NARRATOR: The Niobrara
takes a hard turn north before flowing under the
Mormon Bridge on Highway 12 and into the Missouri River. The popular Country Cafe sat
on the lowlands west of town. LAURA SUCHA: At seven o’clock
on Thursday morning, Gary Nielsen who has Nielsen
Grain across from me called, and he said, “Laura we’re
gonna get wiped out.” MAN: Look at that. That is just insane. Cafe is still there. MALE: The
ice surrounded it. There ain’t nothing
moving there. PITZER: It didn’t
look like anything that should’ve been
in northeast Nebraska. That was probably the
worst for me to watch. And, can you imagine watching
your hometown be destroyed? SUCHA: People kept calling and telling me, watch the video. There goes your roof. So, it was pretty
devastating to hear that news and not knowing, because you
couldn’t get down there to see. NARRATOR: Stunned spectators on the west side of Highway
12 watched the Mormon Bridge lazily float away, severing an economic lifeline
to the village. HENERY:
Iceberg after iceberg comin’
in there and just massive. I mean, it was like a
bulldozer going through, a big bulldozer,
and just leveling everything that got in the way. The power, the way you feel, I mean, that’s mother
nature at her worst. It makes you wonder what
more could ever happen. NARRATOR: Ordinarily,
the collapse of Spencer Dam would’ve been the topic at every coffee
shop in the state. NEWS ANNOUNCER: Local
4 at five starts now. NEWS ANCHOR: Throughout
much of the state, countless people
have been rendered helpless due to severe flooding. And Howard County was
one of the hardest hit. NARRATOR: This year,
everyone had their own simultaneous hometown
crisis unfolding. NEWS ANCHOR: The past 24 hours
have been very active with flooding,
snow, ice, and more. But where do we stand looking
forward, as far as wind and possibly more flooding? Tim. TIM: Yeah, you know the snow is
starting to depart the area. But the winds remain
just as we expected. In addition to that,
we’ve got widespread flash flood warnings, flood
warnings, and flood advisories. Really, the entire eastern
two thirds of Nebraska under some type of
warning or advisory. NARRATOR: On March 13th, the cruel combination
of ice, snow, and rain flooded nearly
every stream and creek, delivered millions of gallons
into the sloping basin containing three branches
of the Loup River before it joins the Platte
River near Columbus. That included 60
miles of meandering Beaver Creek flowing
past St. Edward, a pioneer outpost once
called Waterville. MARV HAAS:
I’ve lived here 30 years, grew
up four miles west of town. I talked to people that
are 93 years old in town and nobody can remember
something like this. NARRATOR: St. Ed’s
businesses line Beaver Street. Right after lunch that
Wednesday, security cameras outside Big Iron
Auction kept watch as the creek moved into town. (ominous music) That’s Werts’ Grocery
across the street, one of the oldest
businesses in town. George Werts stayed as long as he could as water
moved up the aisles. Up the street is Sheila
Hoshor’s hair salon. SHEILA HOSHOR: I was in here
when it was coming up. One minute you looked outside, and the next minute
my car had water on the floorboards
just that fast. They had me sandbagged in and
I had to knock on the door and they had the fireman let
me out because I stayed here, not realizing how fast
that was coming up. NARRATOR: The water
covering the road blocked Jeanette Stultz
from getting home. She got out of her car
to take some video. JEANETTE STULTZ: The railroad
tracks, it was dinging. The lights were
flashing, you know. Really loud. NARRATOR: There’s a
pontoon boat moored curbside at a stop sign, an infant
scooter drifting away, a frantic sandbagging at
the front door of the bank, everyone frigid in
the flow of ice water. STULTZ: It was
just going by my house like a raging river, you know. It just really going fast. It’s a nightmare. I’m thinking, oh my gosh. I could just picture
all my things in the house just
getting ruined, which that’s what happened. NARRATOR: The levy
in St. Edward held, but the water made a joke of it by rushing around both ends. KANDEE DORAME: Get over here. Help an old woman
get in her house. NARRATOR: Kandee
Dorame lived just north of the business district. DORAME:
I laid down for 30 minutes, and I woke up to a funny,
gurgly noise, gurgle, gurgle. What’s gurgle, gurgle? And I sat up and there was
water coming up the vent, heater vent in my bedroom
at the base of my bed. And I’m like, oh
this is not good. And we had that 40
pound bag of cat litter. I would advise people don’t try to stop the flood
with the cat litter. NARRATOR: Kandee sat in a
chair by her front door trying to keep her feet out
of the freezing water. KANDEE: You see
this mud line here? NARRATOR: Until
she was rescued in the bucket of a
front end loader. KANDEE: I haven’t
broke down yet. I hope I don’t. But you never know. I might. NARRATOR: St.
Edward took a beating, to the streets, homes that
may never be occupied again, businesses that may be
too far gone to fix. HOSHOR: I guess thank God for
every day that you get. Don’t take life for granted. And we’re fortunate. We didn’t lose any people. NARRATOR: No
loss of human life, but the toll on farm animals
in the area shocked the senses. MIKE KAMINSKI:
By noon, we seen that
we had more water coming in. By two, three o’clock,
the ice moved in, pushed all the cattle
into the water. NARRATOR: Mike Kaminski’s
farm and cattle operation, on the west side of
the Middle Loup River in Sherman County, maintains
a herd of 300 or so cows. They grazed and calved on ground that had never been
flooded before. This time, the
river rose all day. By mid-afternoon,
it was pandemonium. KAMINSKI: We couldn’t
respond quick enough to what was going on down here. The channel of the river basically started coming
across our property. With it brought all the ice. And you could hear, it was like a train
coming off the tracks. NARRATOR: Kaminski did the
only thing he felt he could, document the loss of his
herd, his family’s livelihood, because he knew it
would be impossible for others to believe
what they were seeing, an ice floe carrying
the animals away. KAMINSKI: The cows were
running into the water. And they were, I’ve never
heard cows beller like that. It wasn’t a normal sound. It was a panic
that they were in. (cows bellering) KAMINSKI: They’re all dead. NARRATOR: Attempting
to save the animals risked the lives of
the Kaminski family. 22 cow-calf pairs
were lost to the river. KAMINSKI: This is the only cow
that we found alive. Probably the most humbling
thing is knowing that you had absolutely no power to
do what you wanted to do. You couldn’t come
out and save ’em. I don’t know if she’s a
little upset or crazy. I don’t know. It was absolutely heart
wrenching to see it happen. NARRATOR: About
25 miles downstream from Mike Kaminski is
Dannebrog, another town hemmed in by two fickle rivers. Dense fog lingered
that morning. And the no-nonsense
weather forecast made Lori Larsen uneasy. LORI LARSEN: We paid attention. You could just feel
that somethin’ was going on and somethin’ was happenin’. It’s looking a little
rough in Dannebrog. This creek is normally
like 10 feet down. It’s almost into the park there. NARRATOR: After a
day of relentless rain, the mayor, Carol Schroeder,
heard the bad news, Oak Creek steadily
filling and quickening. She’s a healthcare
administrator. Her husband, Tom, runs the
bakery and pizza place. CAROL SCHROEDER: I called Tom
and said you don’t have to leave, but be
prepared to leave. Get everything up off of
the floor, the main floor. Put things on the table. And I’ll start heading home. NARRATOR: Then the rivers
took on a life of their own. COMPUTER VOICE:
Additional rain may cause the ice jam to break
and cause rapid rises along the Loup River. Flash flooding is
expected to begin shortly. SCHROEDER: When Terry came
to my house at 8:30, and told me they were
calling off the sandbagging, and said, We can’t keep up.” And he said, “I’ve
gotta get the men home “before they can’t get home.” NARRATOR: During the
voluntary evacuation, most got out while they could. Through the night, the
town’s Facebook page became one of the
few ways people could get information
about their neighbors. LARSEN: My daughter and
I run the Facebook page and so, updating on Facebook. We obviously couldn’t get
to the other end of town. And so, we were the eyes and
ears on this end of town. And so, I continually
was taking pictures and watching the water. NARRATOR: Larsen
worked from her iPad in the living room while her
daughter posted in the bedroom. DAUGHTER: Howard County being
told don’t travel on most roads
because of flooding. LARSEN: We were flooded
all of Thursday. So we really kinda
became a ghost town. There wasn’t much activity. Most people had evacuated. NARRATOR: The next
morning, the water remained. Main Street became
part of the river. SCHROEDER: There was a lot
of force to it. And just the extent
of time it was there, I knew there was going
to be more damage. I knew what we were gonna see in these businesses were worse. LARSEN: Over 50 houses filled
at least to the ceiling. Three to eight feet of water
in all of those houses. SCHROEDER: Water causes damages
from the power of that. But everything soaking longer, and we knew it was
contaminated water. We knew there was sewer in it. KSNB REPORTER:
Two of the roads off of
Highway 58 have been closed. And there’s only one
way into town from here. I spoke to the Howard
County Emergency Manager, and they say that they’ve
run out of barricades for the amount of
closures they’ve had. NARRATOR: That same
Wednesday afternoon, the North Loup River
charged east, engorged with water and a
hundred miles of built up ice slabs and debris. HOLLISTER: I mean, there
was trees and stuff going down there, just
zipping right on through just like a car going by. BILL KELLY: What
did it sound like? HOLLISTER:
It was roaring pretty bad. NARRATOR: In the aftermath,
Jamie Klinginsmith broadcast live on Facebook from the
Lake of the Woods Development. JAMIE KLINGINSMITH:
You can see where the river has completely
washed out our road. NARRATOR: Their
neighbor’s home had been a safe thousand feet
from the riverbank. KLINGINSMITH: Their car is
sitting in the river right now. NARRATOR: A few
doors down, a riverside home had been ripped
from its foundation. Past where the north
branch joins the Loup, ice becomes an annual hazard where the public power
district diverts water from the river into a canal, powering hydroelectric
generators. On March 13th, a series of ice
jams put unheard of pressure on the 70-year-old structure. RANDY PROSOKI: I got a call
from a neighbor here telling me that he was down by
the Loup River Bridge. And he said, as far as
upstream as you could see and as far downstream, he
said, there was an ice jam. NARRATOR: Inside the
Loup Public Power Headworks, a grouping of gates controls
riverflow entering the canal. Water moving at 1,000
cubic feet per second, 10 times the normal flow caused
the structure to shudder. ANDY ZAREK: Worst case scenario
is, it fills the canal up, and you cannot control
the flow into the canal. NARRATOR: The
sandbag crew got out. Within minutes,
the river carved a whole new channel
around the diversion. NEAL SUESS: To be truthful,
it was beyond what you could even
imagine with pictures. It’s amazing what that
power of water can do. NARRATOR: The flood punched
five additional breaches into the sides of the
35-mile-long canal, spreading water across hundreds of acres of farmland
and highways. With the roads washed
out, Andy Zarek had to be flown in by helicopter. ZAREK: They flew us in, and
they dropped me off first in the helicopter. That’s when I seen
it, Friday morning. NARRATOR:
This was the place where
he’d worked since high school. The caretaker’s home where he’d
been raising his family. Piled on a trailer,
a few possessions snatched from the wreckage. ZAREK:
You know, this is all I known, for over half my life,
this is all I’ve done. And then you got all your
family stuff in that house and your kids and your wife
and everything you have. Personal and employment-wise,
you start to wonder, you know, what the heck, ’cause you can’t
go home, because it’s gone. And this is like a second home
and this is part ways gone. So what do you do? Where do you start? NARRATOR: All of the
misery across central and northern Nebraska
in just 36 hours. Historic flooding records had already been broken
at 17 locations. EARL IMLER:
What you have to understand
is, yeah, we knew it was big. NARRATOR: In the Emergency
Management Operations Center, the insane number
of crisis calls came in from across the state. IMLER: We knew this was
something we hadn’t experienced. But when you’re in that
moment, you’ve got a job to do, and you’re
pushing with that. I was extremely proud of the
people that worked in there. They worked to solve problems. They worked in a very cohesive
and collaborative way. You had folks from
Department of Transportation, the State Patrol, Nebraska
Guard, working these problems and figuring solutions to them. How are we going to
get this taken care of? NARRATOR: By the end
of the first two days, the water claimed
two more lives. Platte County farmer
James Wilke volunteered to rescue someone
trapped in a vehicle. The cold, deep waters of
Shell Creek swept Wilke away. Rescuers could not reach 80
year old Betty Hammernik in her home near the Loup
River before she passed away. COMPUTER VOICE:
Flash flood statement. The rapid rises expected
along the Platte River have flattened out
heading downstream. However, the river is still
rising as flood waters continue to pour in from
further upstream. NARRATOR: It was
Thursday, March 14th, as dozens of smaller streams
filled the Nebraska’s largest rivers,
communities like Valley, trapped between the
Elkhorn and Platte had the luxury of a couple
of hours of warning, instead of just minutes. JOHN HAXBY:
So you had time to think about all this, as
what’s coming downstream. NARRATOR; The storm
passed and skies were clear, but the larger communities
in eastern Nebraska prepared to get slammed. LUCAS EGGEN: Pretty much I
woke up to a phone call with my mom saying, “Hey, “we gotta get the
heck out of here.” HAXBY: People didn’t know
what to do other than, they would back their
trucks up to the front door of their house, throw
everything they possibly could, and they would take off. People are in a panic. EGGEN:
Everything that I can live
without is still in the house. But hopefully, it doesn’t get too high that I lose everything. ROBERT FRANKLIN: The
hard part about this whole thing is you really
can’t see what’s coming. I mean, you know what’s coming, but you really don’t know the scope of it
until it gets here. HAXBY: It was moving that fast. So when a levy breaks, you tell
people you need to get out. You need to move now. NARRATOR: By Friday,
even the meteorologists at the National
Weather Service Office in Valley packed up
to escape the flood. HAXBY: This one shot
that I put the camera down on the ground, down by Valley, and I’m watching this water come over the top and start rising. And it’s like it’s alive as it’s coming
downstream toward you. NARRATOR: The surge
overtook one bridge after another,
sealing off Fremont from the rest of Nebraska. Some saw it coming and fled. IMLER: One of the critical
places was Fremont, and it was simply
because the only way you can get in
and out of Fremont there for a period was by air. HAXBY: I called it the
island of Fremont. At first it was panic, but then it was everybody’s
gonna pull together. We’re gonna make this work. We’re gonna pull all
the resources together, everything that we have, and
we’re gonna help each other. And, everybody was
in a good mood. NARRATOR: Everyone left
behind understood the risk and the task at hand. The rivers were
only getting higher. Hard work became
the only defense. ISAAC PAYDEN: The hard part
is all the ways in and out of town are
covered with water. So we’re kinda all just stuck
here until it goes down. And then it just keeps
creepin’ in on us. Levees and dams keep breakin’. And so, it just
keeps gettin’ worse. DONALD THIELEN:
Oh, I think it’s a miracle. I think these guys are
busting their butts and doing the great
work for this community. Fremont-strong,
I tell you that. HAXBY: There was a fear
factor that Fremont was just totally gonna be lost. There’s no high
point in Fremont. It may be within two or
three feet would be it. But it would just roll
down into downtown. It would come in
from the west side. NARRATOR: By Saturday
morning, floods came anyway. COMPUTER VOICE: Flash
flood emergency for Fremont. Residents are urged to
move to higher ground now. NARRATOR: The
water washed through one of Fremont’s
poorest neighborhoods. JESUS GARCIA: And right here
it’s always been quiet, but this happened out
of nowhere so fast. It was pretty scary for
honestly a lot of people. NARRATOR: Some of the
recent immigrants had no idea a flood
was even possible. ANTONIO LOPEZ: I’m so scared
too, because this is a poor time when I see the situation
of the United States. So it’s a little bit
hard when the family they lost, all of ’em
house, car, and it’s hard. HAXBY: And you have a language
barrier in a lot of situations. A lot of people, either
they didn’t understand or they thought they
could make it through, so they didn’t get out. NARRATOR: In fact, there
were hundreds of people who did not follow the warnings
issued hours, even days before they found
themselves trapped. (helicopter blades whirring) LAUGHLIN: Just get what you
can and get out. There’s a few people that
chose to stay out here. So prayers and best
wishes to them. STANZEL: We told them to leave
yesterday and they refused. So now we’re puttin’
our lives and equipment in jeopardy tryin’
to get the people out who refused to
leave yesterday. NARRATOR: Rescues, the
daring kind, that usually make front page news in any town
became frighteningly common over three days in Nebraska. IMLER: They have a concern
for their property, for their livestock, for their
pets, those kind of things. So you have a tendency,
it’s a human nature to wanna hang on at right
there until the last minute. 911 DISPATCH: Don’s
asking if you’re able to get your boat out
and running if need be. If not, we’d understand. MAN: Yeah, it’s
been ready to go. NARRATOR: The O’Neill
Fire Department pulled off this improvised extraction. These were long, frightening
waits for those trapped in their home, unsure when the
waters would creep a little higher, minute by minute. KANDEE DORAME: As I’m
watching water rise here and water rush by
out there with debris and chunks of ice in
it, I had a thought. I wonder if this is how
they felt on the Titanic. NARRATOR: Ice was as much
of a problem as water in villages like Lynch
with frozen creeks. JIM McBRIDE: We had one lady,
’cause she was in a wheelchair. It was dark, it was like
eleven o’clock at night. The wind’s blowing. The water’s rushing
around the house. Ice was on the road
blockin’ the way out, so they couldn’t get
out to their vehicles. They had to leave
their vehicles. NARRATOR: The Nebraska
State Patrol participated in 163 rescues
during the floods. Hundreds of other calls
were made by sheriffs and volunteer fire departments. SHANE WEIDNER: We got stranded
people throughout that area. We kept strongly, strongly,
strongly, urgently, please do not enter any water
with your vehicles. NARRATOR: When a stranded
motorist needed rescue. Here’s the weather faced by
the Gothenburg fire crew. (wind gusting) 911 DISPATCH: The caller said
there’s four-point whitecaps on the river itself. There’s a lot of
ice floatin’ around. It’s ice– I don’t think going out
in the river’s an option. HAXBY: You had the
force of the water. You had the ice coming down. The water was so swift, it
was eroding a lot of the roads out right underneath
these people. And you couldn’t tell it. So some of ’em would
actually drive off into a rut and it would just strand them. So they’d have to
be rescued also. IMLER: We had several incidents
where we were having local fire departments
going out to try and rescue someone
and then end up in a bad circumstance themselves because they’ve just never dealt with the type of flooding issues and the currents
that we had here. NARRATOR: In
the first 48 hours, small town first
responders took on rescues in fast water they had never
been trained to handle. (helicopter hovering) By the third day, when
the waters spread wider and deeper from the
Elkhorn, the Loup, and the Platte, it was time to deploy the Nebraska
National Guard. RICK DAVIS:
Well, the way it happens
someone’s in their house. There’s water rushing around it. They just woke up
and they’re wet. They call 911. That goes to county dispatch. County dispatch then alerts
our personnel at NEMA and says, hey, we’ve
got people here. They’re trapped. We can’t get to ’em. IMLER: I didn’t think
I would ever see in my career a time
when we were literally pulling people off of
rooftops with helicopters. I didn’t think we would
experience that in Nebraska. DAVIS: I think we had
winds sustained 45, gusting about 60 often. We don’t train in those
winds in helicopters. NARRATOR: The rising waters
would not wait for morning. For people trapped in homes
on remote county roads, real fear crept in overnight. KEAL BOCKELMAN: Who’s gonna be
okay through the night? And who needs to
be rescued tonight? Who can’t wait ’til the morning? And as we were
kinda prioritizing, they needed to get out of there. DAVIS: A lot of those we did the first night
were not 911 calls. It was simply going out and
finding people in distress. They assume no one’s
coming to rescue ’em, ’cause it’s eleven
o’clock at night. It’s dark and it’s really
windy and they’re looking and we put a spotlight
on the house. And they go, there’s a
helicopter flying right now? (helicopter flying past) MIKE HUNKE: I don’t think we had
called more than 15 minutes ago. All of a sudden I
heard it outside. I went outside and they were
looking for a place to land. Then we had a dry enough spot. He dropped down and in and out. HAXBY:
You saw so many people coming out of there that they
were just sopping wet. These people were
just happy to be alive and be in a safe spot,
a dry spot especially. They took a lot of pride
in helping these people, not just another number
and make another rescue. You know, they
personally took pets. HUNKE: I said I wasn’t
leaving unless the dogs go. NARRATOR: It’s a
crisis for other animals, the livestock which
were left behind. IMLER: They had livestock
that were isolated and had been isolated
for quite several days. NARRATOR: Those that survived
the first rush of water instinctively went to what
little high ground remained, but their source of
food had vanished. IMLER: The
floodwaters were still rushing through
some of these areas. They were so deep you couldn’t
get equipment in there. So what the guard was
doing was literally putting the big, round bales on
the CH-47s, the Chinooks, the big dual rotor helicopters,
and loading them up and doing hay drops
to feed cattle. (helicopter blades whirring) NARRATOR: Fremont had
been cut off on Friday. By the end of Saturday,
the Platte River inundated the National
Guard’s training facility, Camp Ashland, estimated
repairs, $62 million. Up to nine feet of water washed
into Offutt Air Force Base after the levees failed. AIRMAN: So, the water lifted the file cabinet
up onto my desk. NARRATOR: Estimated
repairs, $420 million. The major commuter routes
from Omaha’s suburbs into the city shut down. $20 million of the
estimated 100 million needed to fix the state’s
roads and bridges. As the Missouri spread
higher and wider than ever before, it took out water treatment plants
at Plattsmouth and Peru. Only with airlifted sandbags
was the Cooper Nuclear power plant able to
hold the water back. Farmers with rich
riverfront farmland never planted this year, because
the water never left. PERU FARMER: We’re gettin’
ready this time to plant in a couple weeks
on a normal year. But now, it’s gonna
be weeks, months before the water
goes away from here. NARRATOR: It was
time to clean up. A couple of weeks after the
floods came to Dannebrog, a quick tour through town
might deceive a visitor. TERRY: Yeah about eight
inches on this main floor. FEMA: On the main floor?
TERRY: Yeah. NARRATOR: Walking
with building inspectors through stripped down homes
revealed the damage done by two rivers’ worth of water. INSPECTOR: As far as I can see, the center wall is collapsed. NARRATOR: 50 homes damaged, a third of the
housing stock in town. INSPECTOR: Give me the
percentage of damage for this. CREW CHIEF:
80 realistically, probably. MAN: Well, with that foundation being gone that’s
a large part of it. So that’s pretty accurate. NARRATOR: On Main
Street, an assessor from the Federal Small
Business Administration examined damage at the
Archer Credit Union. JASON McINTYRE: The basement
filled with water first. And actually I watched it
on my security cameras come up through the floor
in that first room. McINTYRE: Is there too much
structural damage that it wouldn’t
allow us to reopen? And that’s a big concern,
especially being the only financial institution in town. LORI LARSEN: I think
as people start coming in and you start hearing
those stories, and you start realizing
what they lost, and wondering how do
we come back from this. McINTYRE:
You can see it in the faces. When we first came
back in that Saturday, everybody broke down. NARRATOR: Floods
weren’t new to Dannebrog. And strange as it sounds, it
may have prepared the village. The town’s leadership
understood what was at stake, making every business on
Main Street whole again. MAN: Okay, drop it. NARRATOR: In no time,
work began to pump water out of the basements and
clear mud from the floors. The pizza ovens in Tom
Schroeder’s bakery were intact. The building was a mess. TOM SCHROEDER:
We got everything dry. We washed it all down. In the kitchen, we
pulled up the floor all the way down to
the first floorboards. NARRATOR: But
Dannebrog couldn’t afford to lose the only grocery store
or the only bar and grill. CAROL SCHROEDER: We need them
and I need these people to stay and same with the homeowners. I thought don’t move. Don’t walk away
from this property. NARRATOR: Along every street
and town, mounds of ruined personal belongings
piled up curbside. LARSEN: Seeing that stuff on
the street was just so crushing. There were fridges and beds
and sofas and furniture and people’s lives were
out there on the curbs. NARRATOR: The
village board decided to clear the streets
almost overnight. CAROL SCHROEDER:
I think it was important
to say we’ll pay for that. You don’t have to
pay for that garbage. And that wasn’t
all that expensive. I mean, it’s close to $10,000 by the time we
paid for all that. But, we needed to make
that gesture to help them. LARSEN: We’re not gonna stand
there and wait for FEMA or NEMA or anybody
else to show up. We just roll up our sleeves and we do what
needed to be done. NARRATOR: Dannebrog typified
the wary side eye given the Federal Emergency
Management Agency. Skepticism mingled with
hope for financial aid. Up at Knox and Boyd counties,
hearing news of more urban areas getting FEMA’s
attention felt like a slight when some disaster declarations
took longer than hoped. LAURA SUCHA: We’re just sitting
here everyday wondering, well are they gonna stop in? CARRIE PITZER: I don’t
know if FEMA has forgotten about northeast Nebraska. It took a long time for them to realize that they
needed additional help, but all the focus does seem to be on the more populated
areas of the state. COL. CONNIE JOHNSON-CAGE:
That’s not the case whatsoever. And to be honest, we are very
sensitive to that perception. NARRATOR: President Trump
appointed Connie Johnson-Cage to coordinate FEMA’s
response in Nebraska. JOHNSON-CAGE:
To make sure that everyone
knows that they are all going to receive the same level of
benefits as the next county. So it has nothing to do with
any socio-economic borders or anything of the sorts. We’re here to support everyone. NARRATOR: While
some complained about FEMA’s slow response,
hundreds of Nebraskans were slow to register
and apply for aid. JOHNSON-CAGE: A lot of times, we
do not want to ask for help. And we’ve learned that here in Nebraska, there are
certain communities that have, were heavily impacted
by the floods, and they’re just
not asking for help. NARRATOR: State and local
disaster teams don’t come into a town unless
they’re invited. Some in Dannebrog were vocal about not wanting government
inspectors in their homes. LARSEN: I think FEMA and NEMA
are a little bit scary to some people, probably
because it’s government. NARRATOR: Mayor
Schroeder worked with Howard County’s
Emergency Manager to organize a town meeting
at the Baptist Church that the flood
waters had spared. They planned for 40
and 120 showed up. CAROL SCHROEDER: It was bigger
than I thought it would be. MICHELLE WOILTALEWICZ:
I got feedback. They said, “I’m not gonna
let them in my house.” And I don’t blame you
guys, I really don’t. Because you guys have been
through hell, seriously. CAROL SCHROEDER: I think
I could see some people that had some questions
almost ready to argue. I want this and I want that
and how are you gonna help me? What are you gonna do for me? CASEY BROOM:
FEMA doesn’t ride in and
give you a $100,000 check. I am sorry. But I wanna set that
expectation right away, okay. The maximum award amount for FEMA individual
assistance is $34,000. CAROL SCHROEDER:
It changed to what can
we do and where is their help, but what can we do now, and
how can we help each other. I really felt like people
left there with some hope. NARRATOR: Well before
that money arrived, Main Street Dannebrog
opened for business. The grocery stayed open. Once the pizza ovens at Tom
Schroeder’s bakery fired up, people showed up for chocolate
chip cookies and pizza. The waterlogged credit union
was cashing checks again. CAROL SCHROEDER:
I just feel like it
could’ve been so much worse in Dannebrog than it was. So I feel very blessed
that we’ve come out as good as we have
and that people did stay and people are rebuilding
their businesses. NARRATOR: St. Edward
took it hard. 83 homes took water,
some declared unfit to live in without
substantial repairs. The ones on the flood plain, like Jeanette Stultz’s place, will need thousands of
dollars in improvements to meet building codes. JEANETTE STULTZ: Yeah, I’m the
only one left on the block here. I don’t know what I’m gonna do. I like this town. I don’t wanna leave this town. I wanna stay here. I just wish I could get some
money to fix my foundation. NARRATOR: 31
businesses were flooded, but streets and utilities
had limited damage. So places like Werts’
Grocery were up and running within a few days. BRENT WERTS: Yeah, at one
point, I think we had about 30 volunteers
in here doing that. And, it just really
is truly amazing of what stuff can
happen and get done when you got that many
people volunteering. NARRATOR: The
beauty salon was back. The Beaver Dam Bar & Grill
made progress with its mess, hoping to get beer and
burgers back on the menu. BETH CZARNICK: A lot of hard
work to keep our town alive, because if you don’t
have the businesses or the people living here,
you don’t have a town. NARRATOR: Then
reality hit St. Edward. The bar would not be reopening. The building owners
and tenants couldn’t make the numbers work and
bring it back to life. CODY GULBRANDSON: But every time
it came down to feeling like we’re letting the
community down, this kind of took the cake. I mean, this was a magnitude
that we couldn’t foresee and never in our wildest dreams would’ve thought
would’ve happened. NARRATOR: The antique
and secondhand store across the street shut down. The historic office
of the newspaper, The Advance, can’t
be reoccupied. It may not be directly
related to the flooding, but one of the towns
biggest employers, Werner Service & Trucking,
shut down in St. Ed. On the upside, a new community
center is on the way. Voters approved a bond issue to make it happen just a
month before the flood. GULBRANDSON: It doesn’t have
to be a tipping point. It’s a turning point. They have the
mindset to persevere. They won’t give up. NARRATOR: Recovery in
one place meant responding to a $20 million emergency. As water drained from
streets and fields along the Loup River,
the battered levees and diversion dam feeding
Loup Public Power’s generators could do little
to contain the water flowing into neighboring land. NEAL SUESS: You’re kinda taken
aback, I would say, because it’s like nothing
can do that much damage. And then you see it,
and you’re going, wow. And then you start
thinking about, okay, “How are we gonna fix it?” NARRATOR: CEO Neal Suess faced
an urgent set of problems. Short-term, his crew needed
to plug the massive holes on either side of
the diversion dam. Suess turned to his
director of operations. SUESS: It’s like puttin’
a pinky in a flow, in the Missouri River. It’s not gonna stop anything. And he looked at me, he says, “Yeah but we gotta
do somethin’.” NARRATOR: The National
Guard stepped up, delivering equipment and
dropping massive sandbags into place where trucks could
not navigate ruined roads. SUESS: And then they get into
place, you’re like going, hey, this is actually
going to work. And it’s actually
going to succeed. NARRATOR: The
emergency repairs held, but by the end of
the summer the canal to the electric plants remained at only half its capacity,
limiting the amount of electricity the
system can generate. Work on permanent fixes won’t
be done for at least a year. SUESS: But I really feel
now that we are in a place where
I’m much more calm. NARRATOR: Two counties that
got hit first got hit hard. In Boyd County, the
failure of Spencer Dam took out a vital transportation
link to the rest of the state. It also severed the main
waterline serving the area. SHERIFF CHUCK WREDE:
There’s a quarter of a mile through there that
the line’s gone. NARRATOR: The water
district jerry-rigged a system that temporarily
provided drinkable water, but remained at about
half its capacity. Replacing the pipelines
dragged on through the summer. The total cost,
two million dollars. Boyd County’s rural
roads and three bridges were torn up by the storm. The board of supervisors
met in emergency session in April to hear
from the engineers making the damage estimate. ENGINEER: I guess we’ll start
off with the sticker shock. Total is about 4.4 million. NARRATOR: More than
an entire year’s budget in a county with barely
2,000 people living here. STEVE SPENCER: We’re gonna have
to be real creative, I guess. We don’t know yet. We’re workin’ on it. ‘Cause everybody
depends on the roads to get to town, everywhere and kids to school
and mail delivered. And so we gotta do somethin’. NARRATOR: The
cost for road repair in Boyd County does not
include the additional million dollars needed by
the tiny village of Lynch, with its flooded
utilities and streets left behind looking
like dry creek beds. For weeks state highways
near the northern border remained roads to nowhere with a make-or-break
summer tourism season just a few weeks away. The lost bridges
spanning the Niobrara feed the local economy. JODY STARK: That’s
probably gonna hinder
us more than anything. I think that’ll be
the biggest challenge, getting our roads functional
to get people through the area. NARRATOR: By the end of
summer, temporary bridges open to limited traffic, and
building the permanent, new lanes was underway. (electric saw whirring) The happiest stories are
those driven by generosity and the drive to survive. In Niobrara, the roof of
the Country Cafe encased in ice became a
symbol of the ferocity of this historic cyclone. After clearing out
the icebergs, volunteers went to
work rebuilding walls, replacing the kitchen,
redecorating the dining room for a summertime
grand reopening. (people chatting) BILL KELLY: March
13th, did you think you’d see this day? LAURA SUCHA: No, not at first. And you know, my son,
my oldest son he says, “Mom you can do this.” (people laughing) ABBIE SWANSON:
Happy to have my job back. I am happy to see all the
smiling faces come through here. CUSTOMER: You made it.
SUCHA: Thank you. NARRATOR: Let’s face it. It was a bad year in Nebraska. JOHN HAXBY:
This is gonna be something. A hundred years from
now they’re gonna talk about this historical
flooding from this year. KELLY KALKOWSKI: You wanna be
able to snap your finger and just have everything go
back to normal right here and now, but we know
that isn’t gonna happen. NARRATOR: What
was going to help? Across the state
people just showed up to do whatever
needed to be done. ANN HOLZ: We have been feeding
people three meals a day since this all began. We just started. It was just a group of us
that just started coming in. And what can we do? Let’s get people fed
that don’t have homes or have staying
with other people. MARV HAAS: I would never
wish this on anybody. But, I was glad that
I was able to see it and the generosity
to our community and the people’s generosity. LADY:
All just donations from Omaha to a small town that they
have never even heard of. DON HENERY: We had neighbors
who hadn’t talked to each other for literally
years, who couldn’t get along who were hugging each
other and helping each other. It’s been amazing to watch. NARRATOR: Help
came from across town and across the
country. Non-profits, faith organizations,
brand name businesses. A coalition of international
chefs showed up in Fremont doing what
they do best, cook. Total strangers treated
to a fresh meal. MANDY BOPP: It was obvious that
there was some despair and some clear heartache
and just being able to help provide them with a
meal for today for lunch seems to make their day just
a little bit easier. JESUS GARCIA:
You know it feels really good that people care,
that people are out there that are
willing to give a lot from their time and
out of their lives to come and help other
people that are in need. MIKE AERNI: We’re
building relationships with people that
maybe we didn’t know. And we can become a better
neighbor, a better citizen, a better human being that way. NARRATOR: After six
generations on the same land in Boyd County, it looked
bleak for the Ruzicka farm after the crush of ice
leveled the homestead. The friends and
strangers just showed up. ANTHONY RUZICKA:
They’re the heroes. And they, our neighbors,
the whole community, the whole state of Nebraska. They’re the ones. They’re our heroes. NARRATOR: National
media attention brought in cash and supplies
to rebuild everything from the cattle pens
to the main house by the end of the summer. WILLARD RUZICKA: Financially,
it’s probably gonna ruin me, but I’m not gonna quit. I’m not gonna break the
chain, six generations. Maybe they’ve even had it
tougher than I got it right now. You wanna quit, but
I’m not gonna quit. (somber music) Captioning by FINKE/NET (somber music) Copyright 2019
NET Foundation for Television