Elkhorn, Nebraska Flood - 3.30.20

Nebraska residents observe the flooding that ravaged through many areas of the state on Saturday, March 16, 2019, in Elkhorn, Nebraska.

Last year, Nebraska faced some of the worst floods in recorded history. Now, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Nebraska Extension program is gearing up to combat what this spring may bring.

According to Nebraska Extension educator Tyler Williams, he and his colleagues are continuing to work out the details of how their work will change in response to COVID-19. However, he said their work will still be prevalent. 

“[The coronavirus] won’t stop the weather … but it may change how we respond to that weather and how we work with people,” he said. “We’re hoping that it doesn’t hinder our response, it simply changes it.”

Nebraska Extension normally holds a number of events, but social isolation will change its ability to do that. Williams said instead of working with people face-to-face, the program plans to use technology as a medium for communication. Nebraska Extension works with people all over the state to provide guidance during natural disasters, like the floods that swept through the Midwest last year.

“[Last year,] it flooded in levels that no one in my lifetime, and for almost anyone I talk to, no one in their lifetimes, has ever seen,” Williams said.

According to UNL School of Natural Resources climatologist Martha Shulski, rivers crested at their highest levels in the history of gauge observations, federal disasters were declared in 104 cities, four flood-related deaths were reported and damages were estimated to be in the $2 billion range.

Williams said he blames much of last year’s floods on the extremely cold winter that preceded them.

“We had a top two or three year for snowfall in much of eastern Nebraska,” he said. “All that snow and cold weather meant a lot of snow on the surface, but also a lot of frost on the ground.”

Williams said all of the frozen soil prevented moisture from soaking into the ground.

This became a problem during the middle of March when a rapidly intensifying storm called a bomb cyclone came through Nebraska and, according to Williams, dropped about five inches of rain onto frozen bodies of water and ground.

“Typically when it rains, about half of it goes into the ground,” he said. “During last year’s event, none of it was able to go into the ground because the ground was frozen.”

The water that would have normally soaked into the ground quickly became runoff that went to ice-filled rivers, streams and lakes. Williams said this shifted runoff and drainage patterns and gave the water no place to go.

Williams said this, combined with weather warm enough to melt several inches of snow that added to the runoff, created a lot of flooding in a short period of time.

“With frozen, saturated ground and thick river ice, the [bomb cyclone] resulted in historic-scale flooding,” Shulski said in an email.

Nebraska Extension stepped in to help Nebraska recover. According to Williams, the program’s goal is to lessen the impact weather events have on Nebraska, enhance the recovery from that impact and strengthen the resiliency of Nebraskans.

“We have Extension offices and people in pretty much any place in the state,” he said. “So, everyone’s sort of doing their part based off of their local needs.”

Williams said Nebraska Extension also offered recovery centers and deployed volunteers to help in the most heavily damaged areas.

“Initially, it was mainly coordinating volunteers, helping with supplies, distributing donations … those types of things,” he said. “But our main role is to help with long-term recovery.”

According to Williams, long-term recovery includes providing resources to help with gardening, repairing farm ground, canning, identifying mold, replanting trees and managing uncovered land.

“They say it takes on average about nine-and-a-half years to recover from a flooding event of that size,” he said. “So, we will continue to help people.”

Other UNL programs also helped with flood relief, according to Shulski. She said the Public Policy Center held meetings with flood-impacted communities.

Additionally, the Master of Community and Regional Planning program at UNL is currently working with and assessing the preparedness of those communities for future flooding.

Fortunately, Williams said he does not believe this year will bring as much flooding as last year.

“The big, glaring difference is that this year, we don’t have any ice right now,” he said. “That will make all the difference in the world when it comes to the size of flooding we could see.”

However, Williams said he does still expect some flooding to occur. Due to the immense amount of flooding last year, Williams said there are still high levels of moisture in Nebraska’s soil and excess water in Nebraska’s rivers, streams and lakes. 

“We will have that direct carryover effect,” he said.

Last year’s flooding damaged infrastructure such as bridges, culverts and levees. With the immense amount of repair needed, Williams said not everything that was damaged has been replaced or some were patched up quickly.

“Even small flooding would have an impact on us when, if it was maybe a year that didn’t happen after one of our greatest flooding years ... we might not see that much impact,” he said.

According to Shulski, the potential flooding will largely depend on the location and intensity of spring thunderstorms.

To be as prepared as possible, she said all communities should have an updated and comprehensive hazard mitigation plan that incorporates a range of potential flood scenarios.

Right now, Nebraska Extension is focused on informing the community on how to best prepare for and handle what’s to come, Williams said.

“It’s awareness, it’s sharing information, it's connecting people with the National Weather Service and it’s using that information in advance of these events,” he said.

Williams said he believes last year's floods made Nebraska Extension better equipped to handle what comes its way.

“We’ve never had to respond to something of that scale before,” he said. “But I know we’re better prepared to do that in the future.”

As Nebraska’s future unfolds, Shulski expects to see winters and springs that are 10%-15% wetter than the current average with a rise in heavy precipitation events.

She said Nebraska needs to prepare to reduce flood impacts by looking at infrastructure and land management and improving soil health.

“Timing is everything when it comes to the big events,” she said. “Planning for our climate future is a must.”