Ricketts, other officials express confidence that Nebraska will qualify for federal aid

March 21, 2019

LINCOLN — As floodwaters slowly recede across Nebraska, the toll on state bridges is rising and state officials continue to work on expediting federal aid.

Things won’t be repaired and back to normal for weeks if not months, Gov. Pete Ricketts said at a press conference Wednesday.

Three people died in the flooding, and two people remain missing. Overnight, the number of cities under emergency declaration increased to 89, the state joint information center said. Declarations cover more than 88 percent of the state — 77 counties, four tribal nations and five other governments such as townships.

“This is the most widespread national disaster in the state’s history,” Ricketts said. “We know this is going to a be a months-long recovery — repairing a bridge is not quick and easy.”

The governor said he talked by telephone with President Donald Trump after Vice President Mike Pence completed his Tuesday tour of the flooding in Nebraska and Iowa.

The conversation, Ricketts said, may help convince the president to sign a disaster declaration for the state, opening the way for federal aid to repair infrastructure and even help homeowners and businesses impacted by the flood.

“The president expressed his support for the state of Nebraska,” the governor said.

Ricketts also announced that a statewide fundraiser is planned Friday to gather donations for Red Cross relief efforts in the state and southwest Iowa.

Both Ricketts and Bryan Tuma, the state’s deputy emergency management director, said that the amount of damage suffered in Nebraska is far beyond the threshold for disaster aid, but that qualifying for individual disaster aid is complicated.

Tuma said that only once before in Nebraska’s history — the months-long Missouri River flooding in 2011 — did the state qualify for individual disaster assistance.

As of Wednesday, officials gave these preliminary estimates on the damage:

» $439 million in infrastructure damage, such as roads, bridges and water systems.

» 2,039 homes damaged or lost.

» 340 businesses damaged or destroyed.

» $400 million in livestock losses, which includes losses from the blizzard in western Nebraska.

» $440 million in crop losses, which includes land that cannot be planted this year or will see delayed planting.

State Transportation Director Kyle Schneweis said that the number of state highway bridges that were washed out has increased to 13, with three other bridges sustaining washed-out approaches. Two bridges on Nebraska 14 near Fullerton were added to the list Wednesday after floodwaters receded there.

At the height of the flooding, the state had 1,500 miles of state highways closed. As of Wednesday, the agency reported 375 miles of state highways still closed due to debris or high water.

About 200 miles of state highways are unusable, requiring repairs or rebuilding.

Schneweis said that roads officials are beginning the process of deciding which bridges and roads could be temporarily fixed and which ones make more sense for long-term repairs.

One vital commuter route into Omaha, U.S. Highway 75, was reopened Wednesday morning, as was U.S. Highway 275 between Beemer and Wisner. Important access routes like that, for business or commuters, are a top priority, he said.

The highway agency has three temporary bridges, and Schneweis said officials are evaluating whether they could help in restoring access to communities.

The village of Niobrara, for instance, is seeking at least a temporary walking bridge so that students can regain access to the local school after a bridge over the Niobrara River was washed away.

The “Nebraska Strong Drive for Flood Relief” via Nebraska radio and television stations will be held from 5 a.m. till 11 p.m. Friday. Pledges can be called into 1-844-278-8555 during those hours. Omaha-based Omaha Steaks is lending its call-in center for the fundraiser, which is being coordinated by the Nebraska Broadcasters Association.