The Nebraska Department of Transportation now says that because of the blizzard moving across the state, it will close westbound and eastbound Interstate 80 west of the Interstate 76 junction at 5 p.m. MDT/6 p.m. CDT.
Officials are asking people to stay off the roads in the western two-thirds of the state as a life-threatening blizzard rides in on a massive storm.
On the eastern side of the state, people are casting a wary eye toward the Missouri River, since the storm is bringing more rain and snow to the river’s already water-logged watershed.
The potentially historic storm comes one month after a deadly bomb cyclone struck Nebraska, and forecasters say this one will pack a similar punch, with one significant exception: flooding.
Stream levels have dropped, the ice has moved out and the ground has thawed, so there are no worries about the kind of historic flooding that happened with the March storm.
Most of Nebraska west of Kearney has been placed under a blizzard warning by the National Weather Service. The warning generally runs from Wednesday afternoon to Thursday night. The State Patrol is reminding people to carry a safety kit. Troopers will be on the roads to help people who get stranded. State plow crews will be working to keep roads open, as conditions allow.
South-central and southeastern Nebraska are expected to see mostly rain, with maybe a few snowflakes mixed in that shouldn’t stick. By Friday, an inch of rain could fall in the Omaha area.
Severe thunderstorms and hail remain a possibility for Wednesday afternoon and evening, along with an isolated tornado threat along the Nebraska-Kansas border, said Van DeWald, a lead meteorologist at the weather service office in Valley.
Some areas could get icy, too, and storm conditions could endanger drivers and livestock and down power lines.
State Patrol advises those under blizzard warning to stay home
All but eastern Nebraska is under a blizzard warning. Winds of 50 to 60 mph are expected to make travel treacherous.
Col. John Bolduc, superintendent of the Nebraska State Patrol, asked that those under a blizzard warning do the same thing they did in March: Stay home.
“We ask that people do the same with this dangerous storm and only travel when necessary and safe to do so,” he said.
Additionally, the Nebraska Department of Transportation advised people to take well-traveled routes. Road crews will be out, but they will be working only if conditions permit. This storm is noteworthy for the exceptional power of the winds that are forecast across western and northern Nebraska, meteorologists say.
Threat of flooding not as severe, National Weather Service says
However, the flooding threat is not as severe this time around, a weather service meteorologist said. Forecasters are watching sections of the Missouri River where water levels are still high.
“The immediate flooding threat is not catastrophic like it was last month, but it’s something we’ll certainly have to monitor,” DeWald said.
“We don’t have ice in the rivers, and the ground isn’t frozen,” he said. “That’s something that’s completely different than last month. It doesn’t mean the ground isn’t saturated.”
On Tuesday, Cherry County road crews were swapping out graders fixing flood-mangled roads for snow plows.
“Our biggest concern is we’re trying to recover from flooding three weeks ago, and now we’re going to get this on top of it,” said Douglas Fox, emergency management coordinator for Boyd, Brown, Cherry, Keya Paha and Rock Counties.
John Winkler, the general manager for the Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District, said the wild card with this storm is weakened levees.
“We’re kind of in uncharted territory, because a lot of the infrastructure has been damaged and even minor flooding can cause some problems,” he said.
While major levee breaches have been fixed, the NRD still hasn’t finished assessing or repairing last month’s damage to flood management systems.
“No one knows how that’s going to play out,” he said.
Wind advisory in effect for Omaha area Wednesday afternoon; thunderstorms possible later
A wind advisory will be in effect for the Omaha-Council Bluffs metro area Wednesday afternoon and evening, with 20-30 mph winds gusting to 45 mph.
Thunderstorms are possible in the area after 7 Wednesday night, said Corey Mead, a Valley-based meteorologist with the National Weather Service. The threat of severe weather is higher from Seward and Lincoln south to Fairbury than for the Omaha area, he said.
The blizzard expected to hit the western two-thirds of the state is expected to move in Wednesday night, Mead said.
Thursday, a chance of showers and thunderstorms is in the forecast before 10 a.m., followed by a chance of rain. Temperatures are expected to fall to around 40 by 5 p.m. Winds could gust as high as 30 mph.
A chance of rain extends into Thursday evening, then a chance of light snow moves in after 2 a.m. Friday. New precipitation amounts of less than .10 of an inch are possible. Highs Friday are expected to be in the mid-40s.
Elkhorn, Platte river levels have dropped; parts of Missouri River still high
Water levels of rivers that flooded last month, such as the Platte and Elkhorn, have dropped significantly since reaching record-breaking levels last month. That helps reduce the flood risk near those rivers.
The Elkhorn River at Waterloo measured just over 4 feet Tuesday morning, much lower than the 24.63-foot crest recorded March 16, according to weather service data. The Platte River at Ashland was just under 16 feet, well below its flood stage of 20 feet.
But many rivers still have a heavy volume of water flowing through, said Jason Lambrecht, the chief of hydrologic surveillance at the U.S. Geological Survey Nebraska Water Science Center.
“Most of the major river basins of Nebraska (Loup, Elkhorn, Niobrara, Blue, Lower Platte) are already flowing double to four times their normal flow for this time of year,” Lambrecht said in an email. “The basins are still draining from the peak event in mid-March, and could be very responsive to the upcoming rains and snowfall depending on the magnitude of the precipitation.”
Parts of the Missouri, especially near Niobrara and south of Omaha, are running high, and water levels could gradually rise more over the next week due to rain and melting snow. In many of those areas, roads still are damaged and residents still are clearing out flooded houses and businesses from the last round of nasty weather.
“Downstream from Omaha, the flooding has never ended,” DeWald said. “Plattsmouth on downstream never had a chance to dry out.”
Missouri could rise more as rain falls, snow melts
A flood warning is in effect for the Missouri near Niobrara, which was inundated with water and blocks of ice last month after the collapse of the Spencer Dam. There, the river still was at a moderate flood stage of 23.2 feet around noon Tuesday.
In Plattsmouth, the Missouri level was about 26.5 feet Tuesday, just above flood level. The National Weather Service said that could swell to nearly 31 feet by Monday morning. For context, at 28.5 feet, the river would start to flood a campground off River Road about 1.5 miles downstream of the river gauge.
”We’re all just sitting here waiting to see what happens,” said Cass County emergency management director Sandy Weyers. “My hope is people that are in and along that path have been listening and monitoring this enough that they’re taking precautions themselves. If it looks like the river’s up, you need to get yourself to a safe place.”
At 25.5 feet Thursday, the Missouri at Omaha is several feet below flood stage. But the weather service said it could rise to nearly 30.5 feet by early Sunday afternoon, a level that would start to flood low-lying parts of NP Dodge Park and Tom Hanafan River’s Edge Park on the Council Bluffs side of the river.
“It’s going to be kind of a double-barreled punch here,” DeWald said: The Missouri could rise initially due to the immediate rainfall, and then continue rising next week as snow melts elsewhere.
Rain and snow could add up to 1 to 3 inches of water content that will be absorbed by the soggy ground or run into rivers and streams, he said. Melting snow in North and South Dakota also is making its way down waterways in Iowa and Nebraska.
The snow, even in places like Valentine that could get a foot of snow or more, shouldn’t linger for too long. But the hope is that the melting process will take place gradually over several days as temperatures rise into the 50s over the weekend.
“Best-case scenario, it takes several days to melt and allows moisture to soak into the ground slowly,” DeWald said.
Not a ‘bomb cyclone,’ but still a strong storm
The storm that’s moving in Wednesday afternoon may not meet the definition of a “bomb cyclone,” but it’s still a very powerful storm, a National Weather Service meteorologist said Wednesday.
“It is going to be near-record low pressure,” said Taylor Nicolaisen, who is based in Valley. The “bomb” in “bomb cyclone” means it develops quickly, Nicolaisen said. The cyclone that’s moving in, he said, is “not developing really quickly. It’s strong already.”
High winds and heavy snow will create blizzard conditions Wednesday evening, he said. The track for the heaviest snow has shifted west, Nicolaisen said. The Sioux City area probably won’t see much snow, but Niobrara could end up with either 3 inches or a foot of snow. It still looks like Valentine still will get a foot to 18 inches of snow, he said.
“There’s a pretty distinct line of where heavy snow goes,” Nicolaisen said.
Wednesday morning, ice already was sticking to vegetation and some surfaces in the Valentine area.
Impoverished Pine Ridge reservation braces for more flooding
BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, one of the poorest areas in the nation, is bracing for another major winter storm and the prospect of renewed flooding that is also forecast to hit a wide swath of the Plains and Midwest just a month after the last weather blast.
March’s “bomb cyclone” — an unusual weather phenomenon in which air pressure drops rapidly and a storm strengthens explosively — dumped heavy snow on Pine Ridge that led to severe flooding . The high waters trapped hundreds of people in their homes, damaged or destroyed hundreds of miles of roads and dozens of buildings, disrupted water supplies to thousands and prompted the governor to send in the National Guard .
The prairie reservation is roughly the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined and is home to nearly 20,000 people, many of whom live in deteriorating houses or cramped mobile homes. About half live in poverty, and the unemployment rate hovers around 75 percent. The tribe will be seeking help for flooding-related infrastructure repairs from the federal government as well as charities and nonprofits, but many private property owners are looking at the prospect of funding extensive repairs on their own.
“Damage is going to be in the hundreds of millions,” tribal spokesman Chase Iron Eyes said. “Things are beginning to dry out, but now there’s a huge blizzard predicted. On this reservation, it’s kind of a constant crisis the way we live here, and these disasters just put us in a perilous position.”
The storm moving east out of the northern Rockies Wednesday and Thursday could be similar to last month’s . It will pack heavy snow and strong winds and produce life-threatening conditions in parts of the Plains and Upper Midwest, according to the National Weather Service. The heaviest-hit areas are expected to be from southeastern Wyoming through Nebraska and South Dakota into southern Minnesota. Snow is forecast to expand into parts of the Upper Great Lakes, with rain stretching from the central Plains east into the Middle Mississippi Valley and Western Ohio Valley.
The storm deemed “potentially historic” by the Weather Prediction Center brings the specter of renewed flooding to a part of the country where massive flooding over the past month has caused billions of dollars in damage .
Nebraska is not expecting a repeat of the catastrophic flooding it experienced last month because the ground is no longer frozen and ice has melted from the rivers, though there might be localized flooding across the state, according to weather service meteorologist Van DeWald in Omaha. The biggest threat will remain along the already swollen Missouri River, he said.
“It’s really just going to exacerbate that flooding and prolong it,” he said. “We’re probably looking at that surge hitting those Missouri River areas in Nebraska and Iowa three to five days after the storm.”
In northwest Missouri’s Holt County, where the raging Missouri River ravaged roads and highways, Emergency Management Director Tom Bullock is urging residents to be prepared to get out if another surge of water arrives after this week’s storm.
“We don’t have any protection,” he said. “Our levees are all broke.”
The storm crept slowly across Idaho and Montana on Tuesday, dumping rain and snow and prompting blizzard warnings for Wednesday and Thursday in parts of Wyoming and Colorado.
The storm might not be as bad as last month’s but “will be near record intensity for April for this area,” Colorado State Climatologist Russ Schumacher said.
Pine Ridge could see up to 15 inches of snow and winds gusting in excess of 50 mph (80.46 kph). Tribal officials are examining weak spots in the response to the March storm, particularly medical evacuations. Last month, three people who suffered medical problems died before ambulances slowed by floodwaters could get to them..
Henry Red Cloud owns a solar energy business and green energy training center that was heavily damaged by floodwaters against which it was not insured.
“A lot of stuff is near and dear to me — you can’t put a price tag on it,” he said. “But looking around here, I’m going to say, probably a quarter million dollars (in damage). We’re reaching out to any kind of support we can get.”
In the meantime, Red Cloud is hoping the nearby White Clay Creek stays in its banks after this week’s storm.
The new snowmelt will swell creeks and rivers in South Dakota, but likely not to the levels they rose last month due to the absence of a wet snowpack on the ground this time around, according to weather service hydrologist Mike Gillispie in Sioux Falls.
Rivers in Minnesota and neighboring Wisconsin also are expected to rise again after the storm, and “The National Guard stands ready,” said Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz.
The storm is not expected to add a lot of moisture to the Red River Valley of eastern North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota, where major flooding is occurring, according to weather service meteorologist Greg Gust in Grand Forks. It’s not causing big issues in the Fargo-Moorhead metro area, but overland flooding is a problem in many rural areas.
Associated Press writers Colleen Slevin in Denver, Jim Salter in St. Louis; Margery Beck in Omaha, Nebraska; Jeff Baenen in Minneapolis; and Steve Karnowski in St. Paul, Minnesota contributed to this story.