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Vice President Pence to visit; Ricketts calls flooding ‘most widespread disaster’ in state’s history

March 20, 2019

Vice President Mike Pence will travel to Nebraska on Tuesday to survey the damage from the flooding, according to the White House.

Press secretary Sarah Sanders tweeted Monday evening that Pence would join Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts and Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds to visit flood-damaged areas.

Earlier Monday at a news conference, Ricketts called this past week’s events “the most widespread disaster we’ve had in our state’s history,” one that forced 64 of Nebraska’s 93 counties to declare an emergency.

“We can say with confidence we’ve never had a weather disaster that’s been as big as this,” Ricketts said.

As the floodwaters rose last week, the Nebraska Department of Transportation closed 79 highways and 1,568 miles of roadways across the state, Director Kyle Schneweis said in an evening telephone news conference.

That figure doesn’t take into account the blizzard end of the bomb cyclone that blasted western Nebraska and the Panhandle with nearly 2 feet of snow and sustained winds up to 60 mph.

Receding rivers and creeks have allowed the state to open most of the closed roadways, as well as Nebraska 64 into Fremont and U.S. 77 in Beatrice, Schneweis added, but 540 miles of roads still remain unpassable.

There were 29 counties that issued mandatory or voluntary evacuation orders, said Bryan Tuma, assistant director of the Nebraska Emergency Management Association. Six evacuation orders remain in place, while another five counties have kept some restrictions in place.

More than 570 people remained in Red Cross shelters as of Monday, which is also down significantly from the days following the most severe flooding, Tuma added, and more than 4,200 meals had been served since last week.

Ricketts said his conversations with Nebraskans displaced by the flooding, first responders and emergency management personnel, as well as neighbors and volunteers arriving to lend a hand, have left him optimistic the state will recover.

But the recovery — to roads, bridges, homes and farms — could last months and cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Schneweis said 200 miles of paved roads of the state’s highway system will require significant repairs or reconstruction. A total of 11 bridges will need to be completely replaced, he added, while the approaches to three more bridges that remain otherwise intact will need to be rebuilt.

In all, Schneweis estimated the cost of repairing Nebraska’s lost infrastructure, including the Nebraska 12 bridge over the Niobrara River, at $200 million.

The impact to the state’s largest economic sector of agriculture — already hurting under dismal commodity prices and what has been described as a property tax crisis — also suffered millions of dollars in losses within the last week.

Steve Wellman, director of the Nebraska Department of Agriculture, said between lost or sick livestock, additional labor needed to repair damages and other factors, the state will feel a $400 million loss.

Roads closed because of floodwaters have added 150 miles for some producers, like those in the dairy industry, who make routine routes, adding $1 million a day in added operational costs, Wellman added.

Tuma said Nebraska submitted a draft federal disaster declaration to FEMA Region 7 based in Kansas City, Missouri, which would make the state eligible to receive federal funds to repair public infrastructure and individual homes.

State officials will meet with administrators from FEMA Region 7 on Tuesday to review the document in an effort to help expedite the process, he added.

“Ultimately, that goes to the president, and the president makes a decision whether or not to grant that disaster declaration,” he said.

Ricketts said recovering from the catastrophic flooding will be a major focus for the remainder of 2019.

In 2011, it took 108 days for the water level to drop below flood stage in Plattsmouth; the 2019 event has surpassed the flood levels reported eight years ago.

“It’s going to be a months-long recovery to repair some of the infrastructure we’ve got,” Ricketts said. “This really is the most extensive damage our state has experienced.”

Ricketts ended on an optimistic note, however, saying he believes Nebraskans will come together to lift each other up during tough times.

“It’s one of the strengths of our state,” he said. “We pull together during times of trouble and we’re already seeing that.”

Photos from flooding in Nebraska: