Flood updates: House approves delayed $19.1 billion disaster relief package

WASHINGTON — Additional flood recovery funding for Nebraska and Iowa is on its way after the House voted Monday to send a $19.1 billion disaster relief package to President Donald Trump’s desk.

The legislation includes money intended specifically to repair storm-ravaged military installations such as Offutt Air Force Base, which was severely damaged by this year’s floodwaters.

All House members from Nebraska and Iowa voted in favor of the aid package, which was approved 354-58. All of the “nay” votes came from Republicans.

The Senate already passed the bill, but its vote came after the House had left for the Memorial Day break. The bill was then held up last week by a few conservative Republicans in the House who refused to let it pass by unanimous consent.

Some opponents were upset by the amount of overall spending in the bill, and some were disappointed that it did not include Trump’s desired funding to address the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., said it was a mistake for those Republicans to hold up the legislation.

While they had a right to request a roll call vote, it was clear that it was going to roll through with a big, bipartisan majority, he said.

And the Omaha-area congressman said he was proud to support the measure.

“Americans pull together when natural disasters strike,” he said.

Disaster relief bills typically move faster than this one, but Trump and Democrats sparred over additional disaster relief funding for Puerto Rico that he opposed and his request for the border money.

But ultimately, Trump said he didn’t want to hold up the measure any longer and agreed to sign the bill despite its inclusion of Puerto Rico funding and the absence of the border funds.

Midlands lawmakers hailed the overdue passage of the bill, including Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., a member of the Appropriations Committee.

“This is great news for Nebraskans and others who have been affected by natural disasters in recent months,” Fortenberry said in a press release. “Clearly, much more work and funding is necessary, but this legislation is a meaningful step forward as we continue the flood recovery efforts.”

The final version includes additional military funds that could deliver as much as $120 million for Offutt’s immediate needs, as well as money to restore eroded land and damaged infrastructure, he noted.

“This important relief for our nation’s environmental security will reshape eroded stream banks, repair water control structures, fix levees, and restore conservation priorities,” Fortenberry said.

Rep. Adrian Smith, R-Neb., said the state has been devastated and can now move forward with the recovery.

“Thousands of Nebraskans were affected by blizzards, rain, wind and flooding, and this is another step as we rebuild,” Smith said.

Rep. Cindy Axne, a Democrat, represents southwest Iowa, which saw plenty of flooding. Axne said she has been to flood zones multiple times, speaking to families, business owners and farmers who have lost everything.

“Their resilience is inspiring, but the damage is heartbreaking,” Axne said in a statement. “These communities need our help. I’m glad Congress put politics aside and passed this crucial bill with funding for programs that Iowans need to rebuild and recover.”

Work begins on flooded Niobrara River bridges; Highway 12 expected to open by Aug. 15

Two more bridges in the area of the Niobrara River that were damaged in the March floods are heading toward reconstruction, with a goal of opening temporary access to Highway 12 by Aug. 15.

The Nebraska Department of Transportation awarded a $44.17 million contract to rebuild and repair the Highway 12 bridge over the Niobrara River west of the town of Niobrara and the Highway 12 bridge over the Mormon Canal, which is just west of the Niobrara River bridge.

The contract follows the authorization of work on the Highway 281 bridge over the Niobrara River south of Spencer.

Hawkins Construction Co. of Omaha received both construction contracts. Alfred Benesch & Co. is designing the Highway 12 work.

The Highway 281 project is a $25.47 million contract; Olsson Associates has been a consultant on the work.

Northeast Nebraska continues to have numerous highway routes cut off by flood damage.

Boyd County Sheriff Chuck Wrede, in an interview last month, said residents were frustrated by the ongoing road closures and long detours, and gas stations and other businesses were hurting, too, from the lack of traffic.

“It’s causing a lot of hardship financially to everybody,” he said.

Vicki Kramer, communications director for the Department of Transportation, said the department is seeing a number of other projects in the area move forward around the same time.

  • A contract was awarded for Highway 58 east of Boelus.
  • Work is underway on Highway 116 south of Dixon and Highway 13 east of Hadar.
  • The department was working on contracts for a Highway 11 bridge south of Butte, a bridge on Highway 94 east of Pender and a bridge on N-57 southeast of Stanton
  • Work has finished on Highway 15 south of Schuyler.

As more projects move to construction, the State of Nebraska is seeing its price tag rise for road reconstruction.

In April, the state estimated that it would face $100 million in repair and rebuilding costs.

But Kramer said further analysis shows that the figure will be closer to $130 million to $140 million.

Exactly how much of that will be reimbursed by the federal government has yet to be determined. Temporary repairs will be fully reimbursed, but permanent repairs are reimbursed at 80%.

According to the Transportation Department, the Highway 12 bridge over the Niobrara had its approach and girders damaged, while the Mormon Canal bridge washed out and floated down the river.

On Highway 281, flooding washed out part of the highway south of the bridge, the department said. A temporary roadway is due to open by Aug. 1. The permanent replacement bridge is due for completion in spring 2021.

World-Herald staff writer Erin Duffy contributed to this report.

Nebraska Farm Bureau taking more applications for disaster aid

The Nebraska Farm Bureau Disaster Relief Fund is starting a second round of giving out aid.

New and repeat applicants are encouraged to apply.

The fund has collected more than $2.5 million, and all of the money goes to help farmers, ranchers and rural communities. To apply or donate, visit nefb.org/disaster. For assistance, call 402-421-4747.

Farm Bureau membership is not required.

This new round of applications is more detailed to better evaluate needs and divvy up remaining funds, said Megahn Schafer, executive director of the Nebraska Farm Bureau Foundation.

Nebraska Farmers Union still has money available

The Nebraska Farmers Union Foundation still has money available to provide $500 grants via the Nebraska Rural Response Hotline. The grants are funded by Farm Aid, the foundation and other donors.

Applications can be made over the phone at 800-464-0258.

The money is available to those hurt by flooding or the March blizzard. Established in 1984, the hotline is the longest continuously operating farm crisis hotline in the nation. It is staffed by Legal Aid of Nebraska, administered by Interchurch Ministries of Nebraska, and partners with the Nebraska Department of Agriculture and the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.

Services include mental health counseling, bookkeeping, financial counseling, legal services and food assistance.

The foundation continues to receive donations, including $10,000 in supplies and cash donated by Midwest Insurance Agency, $2,500 from the Independent Cattlemen of Nebraska, $2,000 from a church in Alabama and $900 from a tattoo parlor in Omaha.

“The diversity of the response is truly amazing,” said John Hansen, the secretary of the fund. All money donated to the fund goes to aid.

For information or to donate, visit nebraskafarmersunion.org or send checks to NeFU Foundation at 1305 Plum St., Lincoln, NE 68502.

DeSoto, Boyer Chute National Wildlife Refuges fully close

Flooding along the Missouri River has again closed two national wildlife refuges in the river valley.

Boyer Chute National Wildlife Refuge, just east of Fort Calhoun, Nebraska, and DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge, about 8 miles west of Pacific Junction, Iowa, have closed. The refuges had been partially closed, but now they are fully closed.

They will reopen when conditions permit.

Nebraska is part of pilot project to prevent erosion

Heavy rains continue to expose problems with erosion of farm fields, but now, farmers can get some help with a particularly nettlesome problem: gullies that develop in plowed fields.

Nebraska has been selected as one of five states to participate in a pilot project that offers funding for adopting farming practices that keep “ephemeral gullies” from developing.

State Conservationist Craig Derickson said $2 million is available to the state. The deadline for farmers to apply is July 19. Priority will be given to farmers who underwent compliance reviews in the past two years, were found to have problems with ephemeral gullies and were granted extra time to fix the problems.

Discing these gullies leaves nutrient-rich topsoil vulnerable to erosion. Derickson said the pilot project will include solutions such as cover crops, crop rotation, no-till farming, contour farming, buffer strips, terraces and waterways .

“Our advice to a farmer with an ephemeral gully is to ‘fix it, don’t disc it,’” Derickson said.

Other states involved in the pilot project are Idaho, Iowa, Kansas and Missouri. For information, contact your local Natural Resources Conservation Service office. — Nancy Gaarder