AP NEWS

Loup River levels return to nearly normal, officials hope worst of flooding is done

March 20, 2019

Platte County officials are optimistic that the worst of the flooding may be in the rearview mirror.

County Emergency manager Tim Hofbauer confirmed on Saturday that Loup River levels were down more than 5 feet from Thursday when they peaked at just under 18 feet. As of Monday afternoon, water levels continued retreating, with Loup levels in Columbus peaking at 6.57 feet, according to the National Weather Service.

U.S. Highway 81 heading north toward Norfolk remained open Monday, and finally, a single-lane stretch of Highway 81 heading north and southbound was open, monitored by pilot vehicles.

There are, however, stretches of Highway 81 still washed out causing some issues, the emergency manager said.

“We are hoping the worst is behind us. According to the river gauges downstream, we aren’t seeing any surges,” Hofbauer said.

He added on Monday that water levels on the Loup are now about where they should be seasonally.

Currently, all Nebraska National Guard rescue presence is out of Columbus and the county, Hofbauer said, adding that over the course of the past week at least 48 rescues were made from areas south of Columbus, as well as Monroe and portions of Butler and Colfax counties.

Some residents of Whitetail Lake in Columbus, he said, are finally getting to the point where they’re able to safely navigate out of their community.

Hofbauer, area officials and first responders have been working tirelessly monitoring the situation as it has progressed.

“It’s been (Emergency Management) with a lot of support from other agencies,” Hofbauer said. We’ve had a number of volunteers working with sandbags and providing traffic and things of that sort. We have been involved with the coordination of getting helicopters lined up for medivacs and working with some of the grocery stores to make sure that trucks can get into town to bring them the food supplies they need.”

Mayor Jim Bulkley added that store supply needs were a real priority.

“We never quite got to that extent,” Bulkley said of stores being extremely depleted. “Hy-Vee came in on a run from the west and north on Friday afternoon or Saturday morning, so we were able to take care of the immediate needs.”

Several people in the community over the course of last week, in conjunction with the American Red Cross, manned evacuation shelters in Columbus at First Federated Church at East Central District Health Department. As of Saturday, shelter operators were on standby, according to Hofbauer. He noted that he was unsure whether Federated Church was occupied by county residents at any time, adding that he’s aware of several seeking refuge within the walls of the local health department.

Bulkley on Saturday morning drove around the Columbus area and also was airlifted around areas of the county still seeing substantial standing water. He noted that water levels around the Union Pacific Railroad Black Bridge have significantly dropped since nearly putting the structure under water late last week.

Hofbauer said that the crisis situation in the city and county is very comparable to 1993 when flood waters tore through the area.

“If I were to have a comparison, I would say it’s very similar,” the emergency manager said. “I’ve had a number of people tell me that there’s water in places they’ve never seen before. But until all the reports from the flooding come back from the (National) Weather Service, we won’t really know for sure.”

Bulkley added similar thoughts, noting water levels and damage are pretty consistent on all fronts, if not worse. The mayor said that the levee project completed along the Loup two to three years ago was a real blessing in disguise.

“We had to make sure that we were within FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) regulations and requirements,” Bulkley said. “Everyone (surrounding areas) had to bring their levies up to the heavy new spec requirements. It was mandated and it cost about $3 million or $4 million.

The levee, Bulkley said, starts on the southwest side of Columbus along the Loup River’s bank near Shady Lake Road and runs all the way to the end of Quail Run Golf Course.

Although the levee held, Bulkley noted that there has been some stress on Columbus’ pumping stations handling pooling water in various areas. Certain neighborhoods, he added, were asked by city officials during the weekend to cease water use in their homes for a period of time to prevent additional problems.

“Some of those (lift stations) are struggling to handle water – these are the pumping stations that handle the sanitary sewers,” Bulkley said. “When you have a flat town, you have to be able to pump your water out to your wastewater treatment facility.”

Taking precaution only gets an area by for so long when conditions turn, but the mayor noted that the fairly new levee did its job in the face of unpredictable circumstances. The circumstances of having ice jams on the Loup River, rain and heat loosening it and then the hard ground being unable to properly absorb the flow.

“It really just has been the perfect storm of circumstances,” he said.

Sam Pimper is the news editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at sam.pimper@lee.net.