Road closed signs and driving slower than you ever thought on a gravel road describes eastern Nebraska since the flooding of mid-March. But something as simple as a sign telling you that you can’t go forward wasn’t going to stop Nebraskans from working to get their lives back on track.
Before we get into what is described as the worst weather disaster in more than 50 years, let’s take a side road to how I got here. First, let me introduce myself: I’m Susan Littlefield, farm director at KRVN/The Rural Radio Network that is based out of Lexington, Neb. What makes our company unique is we are a cooperative fully owned by the farmers and ranchers we serve on the air. To be able to open the microphone and tell the story of agriculture is a privilege that I don’t take lightly.
I grew up around the Lindstrom, Minn., area and was very active in FFA. I attended UW-River Falls, where I met my husband, Michael. He and his family farmed northwest of Turtle Lake, Wis. My job in radio brought us to Nebraska, where we farm south of Surprise. Working for KRVN has allowed me the opportunity to work from home, where I do both radio and television.
Michael and I raise registered Columbia sheep and whatever 4-H projects our children are into. We have three kids — Bryan is in the U.S. Army, Morgan is a junior in high school and Paul is an eighth-grader. We keep busy with the farm and keeping up with the kids and their adventures.
Let’s get back on the gravel road that leads us to my community in Butler County. We had a blizzard the week before and rain leading up to March 13. Toss in there a quick warm-up before the rain and you’re asking for trouble, and trouble is what we got. We live across the road from the Big Blue River. On that Wednesday, as I finished up my day, my pager went off for a special assignment and to meet at the fire hall. I should mention that I am a volunteer firefighter and an EMT. (I got my start on the Apple River Fire Department in Range, Wis.). We spent a good couple of hours filling sandbags for our community and those who live close to the river.
When I came to town, the sun had come out and it warmed to 60. By the time I left 4½ hours later, it had cooled to the low-40s and was raining again; the road to the south was under river water. The Big Blue would continue to flow out of its banks for the next couple of days and take control once again of the corn and soybean fields, along with pastures and roadways. Creeks and rivers in our county pretty much shut down any rural movement. The county road department ran out of road closed signs, and all three schools in the county were closed. The water movement slowly ate away at the ground, washed out roads, left behind debris to clean up and made travel difficult.
For us, we are lucky as we are on higher ground. The creek that runs through our property came up quickly as it washed out part of the road to the west of us and came close to coming over the road just west of our driveway. The pasture and alfalfa field would see water flowing through it, but luckily, our livestock were at higher ground as we get ready for lambing. Others were not so lucky, and I’ll get to that in a bit.
As you head north of my community, there are two main rivers: the Platte and the Loup. They flow east and eventually find themselves joining the Missouri River. Just like to the south, the weather caused issues for those north, west and east of us. From ice building up on the Loup River to blizzards and a quick warm-up, it was a recipe for disaster.
March came in like a lion with two storm fronts that dropped 6-plus inches of snow in the eastern part of the state and from 8 to 12 inches in the western part of the state. Then, by the second week, we started to get a warm-up, which brought on rapid snow melt, with a deep frost still in the ground. Then, it started to rain for two days and the ice jams started backing up the Loup River once again just south of Columbus.
Cattle producers in the western part of the state were trying to dig cattle out of snowdrifts and account for animals, as cattlemen in the east watched floodwaters take away their livelihoods. For many, the watches and warnings came so fast, it was hard to get livestock moved to higher ground. One producer shared a video via Facebook that said it came down to saving their lives or the cattle, and the girls were going to have to fend for themselves. All the time she is talking, you can sense the tears that were rolling down her face. This story was played over and over again.
We also lost an amazing farmer, James Wilke, as he helped emergency personnel try to rescue a stranded motorist. James and his tractor were swept away when a bridge north of Columbus gave way.
Between the flooding and the blizzards, 74 cities and 65 counties had a state of emergency declared, and as of April 1, 16 of those counties have been declared disasters by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. I have been told that more counties could be added as more information becomes available.
Estimates continue to come in, and the talk is more than $1 billion in damage, and rising.
As homes, farms, buildings and livestock are examined, roads, bridges, levees and businesses are being assessed. Right now, it’s the hot-topic question of how much this is all going to cost. How do you put a dollar value on generations of genetics, equipment and the workings of your family operation? Townships are worried they won’t have the money in the budget to replace roads that are in disrepair if they don’t qualify for federal assistance. They know the roads have to be fixed to get the infrastructure and commerce going once again to help the communities get moving back in the right direction.
The Nebraska Farm Bureau spearheaded assistance through its website for both financial donations and as an exchange page where producers could meet to help out others in need. Steve Nelson is president of the Nebraska Farm Bureau: “We’ve been in communication with the Nebraska Department of Agriculture in regard to some preliminary estimates on losses. Those were in the range of $400-million-plus in the livestock sector and $440 million in the crop sector, from delayed or prevented planting. Neither of those estimates account for property losses, (i.e. barns, buildings, corrals, fences, irrigation systems, etc.), which will be extensive. Nor do they account for rebuilding infrastructure needed by agriculture (roads, bridges, etc.). The numbers above are very early estimates. I know the NDA is working to get a better handle on numbers, and some will be difficult until floodwaters recede.”
With the help of the National Guard, many cattle that would be going hungry are receiving hay via helicopter drop. According to Christine Kamm at the Nebraska Department of Agriculture, “donations of hay are coming into our state from 33-plus states.”
Out-of-state farmers and ranchers are dropping what is going on at their own operations to organize and deliver the needed hay, feed and fencing supplies. They arrive with tears and open arms to hug their fellow producers and to say, “It will be OK once again.” Conversations with producers have been tough as they tell their stories of cow/calf pairs lost, homes that have been in the family for generations were ruined and trying to decide how they will rebuild — and for some, if they will. Farmers and ranchers who lost livestock will work on trying to rebuild the genetics, but the impact will be felt when those lost calves should have been headed to area sale barns or feedlots and cows would be turned back out once again with the bulls.
We have watched the flooding in 2011 along the Missouri River and watched it come back again this year. Never did we think we in the middle part of Nebraska would we be dealing with such devastation. We have roads that are gone, and county and township governments are worried about how they are going to get these roads back in shape ahead of spring planting.
Speaking of, spring planting is going to be delayed as fields are cleaned up. Unfortunately, many of the planters won’t be in the dirt as the fields are covered with so much debris from sand and silt, along with the trash the waters left behind, that they will be spending the year working to get their fields back in shape to plant in 2020. Another hit to the pocketbook for those in the ag industry.
So, how can you help? The Nebraska Farm Bureau and the Nebraska Cattlemen have funds set up, along with the Nebraska Department of Agriculture and their Hay Hotline. All three of these are great resources for those who want to help as Nebraskans continue to rebuild and move forward.
As roads get fixed and bridges get rebuilt, a new normal will be setting in for those in agriculture. But it goes beyond our gravel roads; the effects of the March disasters will be felt all across our state. The businesses and the infrastructure will come back. It will take time, but the economic blow to our ag industry and the state will see effects for years to come.
In the end, we will continue to pull our lives together by our boot straps and hold on to being #NebraskaStrong.