Fortenberry tours Columbus flood damage

March 26, 2019

A Columbus Public Schools bus on Saturday was parked outside of the City Hall building downtown.

But instead of transporting school children, it was used by an assortment of county leaders and Congressman Jeff Fortenberry to view the worst-hit areas during the recent flood. Acting as bus driver for the outing was Columbus Mayor Jim Bulkley. On board was Platte County Emergency Manager Tim Hofbauer, Platte County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jerry Engdahl and Loup Power District President/CEO Neal Suess.

Cookies were passed around as the bus traveled south on the Highway 81 to cross the Loup River. Traffic slowed because one of the bridge’s lanes was still closed. Stretches of sand along the banks of the river marked the highest point of its expansion the week prior. Once through the bridge segment, the delegation witnessed a forested area that was once full of grass, but now blanketed with white sand. Buildings located between the Loup and Platte rivers had visible lines indicating the height water had reached.

The bus eventually made a stop at the T-Bone Truck Stop. Chairs and other furniture covered with mud sat outside the building. Fuel manager Fred Leibhert and his son, Brock, welcomed the group and gave a guided tour of the damage. The truck stop’s Rancher’s Choice Cafe was empty, its carpet still soaked and kitchenware dirty from the flood.

While T-Bone was hit hard, it’s building was still intact. However, it was a different story for the buildings across the street. The metal walls of Island Supply Welding were bent and and torn, appearing swooshed. Next to it was building with a huge chunk of wall missing, part of it now hanging over a water-filled ditch. A nearby car rested on its back, flipped over by the raging currents.

During the tour, one official asked Leibhert about some swirling rumors, which he confirmed were true. The business had experienced some looting after the flood, but nothing else has been taken since Leibhert has been more present at the venue.

“We lost some stuff, but it is what it is,” Leibhert said. “There’s no question that we’re going to do whatever it takes to bounce back.”

Fortenberry said the destruction, while terrible, was something Nebraskans can recover from with hard work.

“This is unprecedented 500-year flooding,” Fortenberry said. “The devastation is harsh. It’s horrific. It’s a tsunami effect. But Nebraskans, because of the character of who we are, are prepared to meet this because of the structures of local government and people’s willingness to pull together. I mean, you see it here at T-Bone.

“In the midst of all this difficulty, to be here at T-Bone Truck Stop and to see how much they’ve already done in terms of cleaning up. To hear (Leibhert) say ‘Hey, at T-Bone, we get it done. We’re Nebraskans.’ It just really is uplifting to me.”

While driving, Hofbauer told the group that it has been difficult to fully assess the damage because some portions of Platte County are still inaccessible. His office has reached out to people on Facebook encouraging them to call to report damage. Anyone affected by the recent flooding in Platte County can stop by the Columbus Emergency Relief office at 3020 18th St. from 12-6 p.m., Monday through Friday, to meet with a caseworker to apply for emergency relief funds.

The entire field trip lasted about two hours, and Bulkley noted that he appreciated the congressman’s visit. The mayor said that he, along with the rest of Columbus, is ready to get to work cleaning up some of the expansive mess.

“Congressman Fortenberry (has) always been a good ally for Columbus,” Bulkley said. “I think anytime you can share what has happened with the officials that really help make the things happen from Washington, it’s good.”

Eric Schucht is a reporter for The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at eric.schucht@lee.net.