A unique combination of events all came together last week, which culminated in devastating flooding for many parts of the Midwest. Nebraska has seen the worst of it. Record river crests have led to closures of several Ag-related businesses and caused evacuations of entire towns in parts of the state. Long-term infrastructure damage is anticipated, though it’s too early for accurate estimates.
Bomb Cyclone Hit Midwest
A “bomb cyclone” carrying hurricane force winds, tornadoes, heavy snow and rain hit the Midwest last week. Parts of South Dakota and Iowa have seen damage from this storm, but perhaps no state has seen more damage than Nebraska. It’s the worst flood in the state’s history. Bill Spiegel of Successful Farming reported how the storm caused lasting damage to parts of the state.
From March 12-14 a low pressure system with heavy moisture made its way across the US, and Nebraska saw the worst of it. Blizzard conditions occurred in western Nebraska. Scottsbluff, NE saw 12 inches of snow and Chadron, NE received 17 inches. Heavy rain fell in other parts of the state. In Danenbrog, NE 4 inches of rain fell, and 2.27 inches fell in Norfolk.
None of those totals are necessarily record-breaking, but the problem was mostly the rain falling on top of frozen ground. All that water couldn’t soak into the ground, so it poured into nearby rivers and low-lying areas.
Ben Potter of Farm Futures lays out just how terrible flooding conditions really are, and how they got to be so bad. Potter says the damage from the “bomb cyclone” isn’t just affecting Nebraska. There’s also been extensive flooding in Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, South Dakota and Wisconsin. As of March 18, 41 different locations had reported record-breaking river levels.
Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, says spring flooding isn’t unusual. However, for this weather event, many significant factors all came together at once.
- Record snowfall has fallen in some areas of the Midwest and Plains this winter.
- Extreme cold and persistent below-freezing temperatures has kept snowmelt relatively suppressed for now.
- Snow and subzero temperatures have extended later into the season than normal.
- A lot of acres were already saturated from ample 2018 moisture.
Record River Crests
As of Sunday, record river crests had occurred in 17 locations. throughout the state of Nebraska. In many instances, water this high hasn’t been seen since the 1900’s. Below is a list of some of the record river crests:
- Near Louisville, NE the Platte River crested at 14.3 feet, beating the old record by nearly 2 feet.
- The Missouri River crested at 41 feet at Plattsmouth, NE, which broke the previous record by 4 feet.
- The Missouri River is expected to crest at 30.2 feet at Nebraska City, NE breaking the previous record by 1.9 feet.
- The Missouri River is expected to crest at 47.5 feet on Tuesday, breaking the previous record by more than a foot.
- The Platte River is expected to crest at 14.3 feet at Louisville, NE, breaking the previous record by 1.9 feet.
- The Elkhorn River at Waterloo, NE crested at 24.6 feet, breaking the previous record by 5.5 feet.
Closures and Evacuations
Roads are closed throughout central and eastern Nebraska due to flooding or compromised roads. More than 40 state and federal highways are closed or have restricted access. County roads are also affected. Road closures are having an impact on logistics across the state. Roads surrounding the Cargill Ethanol Plant near Blair, Nebraska were closed, meaning farmers could not haul grain there. Cattle feeders also can’t get distillers grains.
Railways in parts of the state are also closed, meaning ethanol cannot be shipped out. River barge traffic has also been affected.
According to the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency, 25 different communities have had full or partial evacuations. Water supplies in communities along the Platte, Wood, and Niobrara rivers have been compromised.
Karl Plume of Reuters also reported on significant impacts. He says disruptions in supply could impact cattle, hog and feed grain markets throughout the region. Futures on the Chicago Board of Trade and Chicago Mercantile may also be affected.
Archer Daniels Midland Co. was forced to close their corn processing facility in Columbus, NE due to flooding. Cargill Inc also closed its Council Bluffs, IA, and Albion, NE grain elevators. An ethanol plant in Albion operated by Valero Energy Corp was also closed down.
Long-Term Infrastructure Damage
Rachel Gabel of The Fence Post predicts that it will take Nebraska some time to recover from the storm damage. Nebraska Farm Bureau president Steve Nelson says the combination of snow and flooding was extraordinary. Nelson said there is infrastructure damage to many bridges, dams, and roads.
“The cumulative damage there is going to be significant and it will take a long time to make those repairs,” he said. “It’s not something that just happens when it dries off.”
On top of this, many residents have lost electricity, don’t have access to safe drinking water, and can’t get around. It’s still too early to estimate the extent of the damage across the state.
“We don’t have the numbers at this point to talk about what the losses are to quantify the losses but as the days go by, there will be information on that,” he said. “We’re in tough economic times to start, with tight margins in almost everything we grow or raise in this part of the country. Then you have something like this that is this extraordinary and creates some really difficult times for people, it might not show up for a year or two. The banker may not pull the rug out from somebody right now but some of these losses concern me if they’re recoverable down the road when we see the negative effects.”
Challenging for Ranchers
Nebraska ranchers in flooded areas have had somewhat limited access to their cattle. The cattle are separated from their feed, and farmers can’t access them. It’s also right in the middle of calving season, and finding dry areas for baby cattle is challenging.
Images of cattle stranded on tiny islands are floating around the internet, says Karl Plume of Reuters.
“You’ve got stranded cattle, and a lot of flooding in the feedlots. You’ve got just a sea of mud, and it’s affecting performance,” said Alan Brugler, president of Omaha-based advisory service Brugler Marketing and Management.
It’s a real problem for rancher efficiency in Nebraska, which is the second-largest cattle producing state in the nation. Cattle are covered in mud and cattle aren’t gaining weight.
Shaky Start to 2019
Planting season is thankfully still a few weeks off, and wet springs don’t always mean low fall yields. Extended forecasts for the next couple of weeks are showing the potential for more precipitation and warmer temperatures. If the forecast holds and current conditions persist, many will be watching the Corn Belt closely to see how the flooding may have impacted crops this season.
How to Help
The Nebraska Department of Agriculture has a list of disaster relief resources for farmers and ranchers needing assistance. For Nebraska residents living in Dodge and Washington counties, Extension Educator Nathan Mueller is helping to facilitate relief. The Nebraska Farm Bureau is accepting donations and matching donors with those in need through their Disaster Assistance Exchange.
Photo courtesy of Lincoln Journal Star