Residents scramble as floodwaters breach levees, prompt evacuations

Residents scramble as floodwaters breach levees, prompt evacuations
Missouri Valley, Iowa (World-Herald News Service)

People grabbed their pets and important papers and fled homes in eastern Nebraska and in Iowa on Wednesday as rising streams spilled into low-lying areas and levees broke.

The misery will continue Thursday as more rain falls and creeks continue to rise. Added to the potent mix Thursday will be powerful winds capable of downing power lines and toppling trees weakened by water-logged soils.

It may be days before the full magnitude of the massive storm’s damage is known. Western Nebraska was crippled by one of its worst blizzards in years. In eastern Nebraska, where it was warmer, rain washing off frozen ground has caused flooding that could reach historic levels, the National Weather Service has warned.

“This is going to be a prolonged event,” said Bryan Tuma, assistant director of the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency.

In at least three areas, levees were overtopped or breached Wednesday: southwest Sarpy County; above Pierce, Nebraska; and around Missouri Valley, Iowa. Additionally, rising waters threatened to overtop the levee along the Shell Creek overnight, jeopardizing property in Schuyler and Rogers, Nebraska.

In Iowa, the entire town of Missouri Valley, population 2,600, was asked to evacuate after levees protecting the community were breached.

“We have multiple breaches at the dikes in all areas of town,” Fire Chief Caleb Wohlers said. “We can’t force people out of their homes, but I’m very pleased with the amount of people who have started to move their stuff.”

Power was being shut off to the town, Wohlers said.

Many other Nebraska and Iowa communities remain at risk. In Nebraska, evacuations have occurred in Cedar Rapids, Belgrade, Randolph, Pierce, Burwell, Verdigre, Harrington, Dannebrog and St. Paul, according to state emergency officials. Nickerson and St. Edwards also have taken on water.

The list of communities affected continued to grow, Tuma said late Wednesday night. Sandbagging, which had been underway in many communities, was abandoned in some places as the rising water overwhelmed their efforts.

Many Nebraska counties, along with the state, issued emergency declarations.

Shelters were opened in Nebraska and Iowa.

In Council Bluffs, residents of the Valley View Estates apartments were asked to voluntarily evacuate as the Mosquito Creek rose out of its banks.

In Missouri Valley, several trailers loaded with family belongings could be seen heading west from town Wednesday evening. Two blocks from flooding Willow Creek, longtime residents Dave and Georgia Johnson loaded clothes and a few supplies in the back of their pickup truck. They planned to stay unless the water forced them out.

“We really have nowhere to go except for friends,” Georgia Johnson said. “I don’t want to leave.”

Across the region, numerous vehicles stalled out in high water. Gov. Pete Rickets and emergency officials at all levels of government in both states implored people to avoid traveling. Nebraska State Patrol Superintendent John Bolduc said two people had to be rescued by boat from the roof of a vehicle that got caught in floodwaters near Pierce.

Doug Reed, emergency manager for Pottawattamie County, said rescuing stranded drivers takes time away from fighting the flooding.

Creeks and rivers aren’t expected to crest until the weekend, and even then area residents may not be out of the woods. The good news, according to the weather service, is that a couple of days of sunshine are around the corner, which will give watersheds a slight breather. The risk of ice jam flooding will remain until the ice fully washes out.

Tuma said the Nebraska National Guard has a helicopter on standby to dust the jams with coal ash. The dusting would be done on Friday, weather permitting. He said the operation needs sunlight to heat up the ash, thus helping melt the ice.

Tuma said some local officials also are looking at the possibility of blasting the ice jams. But he said that would require careful planning and the right conditions, so that the remants of the ice jam do not create further problems downstream.

Neither type of action would be necessary if the ice jams break up on their own.

Missouri River levels are rising, not only from the rain runoff but from increased releases from a massive dam upstream. The Army Corps of Engineers on Wednesday increased the releases at Gavins Point Dam from 17,000 cubic feet per second to 27,000 cfs. John Remus of the Corps of Engineers said the increase is needed to evacuate runoff streaming into the reservoir above the dam. Additional increases are possible. To take pressure off the reservoir, the Corps shut off releases from the dam above Gavins Point.

And while it may not feel like it, the Omaha metro area has caught a break. Less rain fell in Omaha than in northeast Nebraska on Wednesday, and the metro area is expected to receive lighter rainfall Thursday than areas to the north.

The storm hammering the state is of epic proportions, a so-called bombogenesis or bomb cyclone. Essentially, it’s a winter version of a hurricane and it derives its name from the way it explodes onto the scene. The power of the storm can be blamed for the crippling blizzard that shut down the western half of Nebraska. And it’s to blame for the winds that will beset eastern Nebraska on Thursday.

Bomb cyclones of this magnitude don’t happen very often, said AccuWeather senior meteorologist Dave Samuhel. “We probably see something like this once a year somewhere in the country.”