Columbus and Platte County leaders on Thursday afternoon gathered downtown to discuss some of the ongoing collaborative action taking place regarding flooding in the area.
That flooding, Gov. Pete Ricketts said during a separate Thursday afternoon press conference in Lincoln, has resulted in two missing people and one confirmed fatality in Platte County. Officials said later in the day that details regarding the fatality would be provided at a later time.
As of 1 p.m. Thursday afternoon, the Loup River in Columbus was still predominantly staying within its banks, causing only some low-land water issues with no substantial in-town flooding. Since then, water levels have continued to rise and widen the river.
“We are still monitoring everything at this point, we are watching the Loup River and (its) levels very closely,” Columbus Mayor Jim Bulkley said. “We have not had any breaches at this point. I would like to deny any rumors out there that there have been evacuations ordered or given, there has been absolutely nothing. There is no need to do that at this point.
“We have crews out watching and monitoring areas we have gotten a little leery of, and at this point, that’s all worked out very well. It’s been a great team effort …”
Leaders said that it has really been a perfect sequence of events that has led to water conditions beginning to spiral out of control over the course of the last few days. Snow and rain from the west have made their way into the Loup River basin and been carried through Platte County. Combine that with warmer temperatures coming quickly and freeing Loup River ice jams, all the precipitation over the last few days and the still-frozen ground unable to soak up rainfall, a pretty bad situation presents itself.
“Those are really unique circumstances that you probably could never predict,” Loup Power District President/CEO Neal Suess said.
On Thursday afternoon, the Nebraska National Guard was planning to fly into Columbus with a Black Hawk Helicopter to aid with various county rescues involving people in situations preventing them from seeking safety. High winds, however, prevented this from happening. Instead, Ricketts said Lincoln's Urban Search and Rescue Team was deployed to Columbus with five to 20 people and five dogs on a list for rescue in Columbus. A family with a child was the priority, he noted, though the status of those rescues wasn't clear at deadline Thursday night.
Residents heading out of town Thursday couldn’t help but notice all the standing water leading south out of Columbus starting around Eighth Street and 33rd Avenue. The 33rd Avenue viaduct, itself, closed during the day from 13th Street leading south to the Loup River Bridge, which was also closed with water levels continuing to rise. A fair amount of water covered much of Pawnee Park and the Andrew Jackson Higgins National Memorial in south Columbus by late afternoon.
Areas in Lindsay, St. Edward and various other county towns have some street flooding hampering residents’ abilities to move about and out of their townships, Platte County Board of Supervisors Commissioner Jerry Engdahl said.
“There are people all around that can’t get around,” Engdahl said. “ … And this is the reason we are telling people to stay home, don’t try to cross any roadways that are full of water. It’s not working out well for some that have tried it, so, we encourage them (residents) to stay home.”
On Thursday, one of the main areas taking on standing water was the south base of the 33rd Avenue viaduct. But, Bulkley said that people need to understand the reasoning for why this happened.
“That is the main drainage for 33rd Avenue that ends up in the Loup,” he said of the system at the intersection of Eighth Street and 33rd Avenue. "When the Loup gets above where the drain goes in, it starts to back up. So, you know, it’s not the levee breaching or anything like that, it’s just a backup, kind of like you might have in your sink.”
Although the Loup River wasn't breaching its banks in Columbus on Thursday, there is still lots of concern with the rising water. On Thursday, the Loup River in Columbus rose to 17.74 feet. This is the second highest level reached since the Loup was nearly 20.07 feet deep during the historic flood of March 1993. The depth recorded Thursday is the second highest since 1966, according to the National Weather Service.
The city and the county on Wednesday asked Loup Power to declare an emergency which would allow for the company to up the water volume able to be diverted into its power canal at the headworks between Fullerton and Genoa.
The headworks is a structure placed in the Loup River and is used to keep water flowing down the river while also bringing the water into the canal, Suess said. Although there is always an attempt to divert some river flow into the power canal, the city and county asked the power company to declare the state of emergency which would enable it to take more water than its licensed 2,000-cubic-feet-per-second capacity in an attempt to diminish rising water levels.
The approximately 35-mile-long canal starts 5 to 8 miles west of Genoa and navigates southeast of Columbus before draining into the Platte River. Throughout the winter, water intake into the canal has been minimal because of an icecap forming at the headworks.
Late Wednesday, though, the ice cap broke free which limited all ability to control the diversion of water into the canal.
“Then all the water came on down … And when you get a huge amount of water coming down it kind of chooses what to do,” Suess said. "We don’t have a whole lot of say in it …”
A Loup Power employee who lives out at the headworks was actually evacuated Wednesday night because of the rapid flow of river without the icecap slowing it down. Suess said the uncontrollable flow damaged structures at the headworks intended to control the channel’s water input and output. Suess added that there is believed to be a structure breach based on water fluctuation being seen, but that Loup Power is unsure of the extent of the damage currently.
“It (flooding potential) doesn’t affect anything from the electric company standpoint, it does affect us with our ability to generate power to NPPD,” Suess said. “The big concern is what’s going on with damage at the headworks, and what will it take to fix it.”
The mayor and board chairman encouraged city and county residents to be smart and use their heads over the course of the next several days. It’s one thing to be curious and wary of conditions, but it’s entirely another thing to actively try to drive around and look for flooded areas.
He praised Platte County Emergency Management for its efforts with keeping residents and the city up to date with what is happening in the city, county and surrounding area. But, he noted, leave the water examination and determination to local and county officials.
“Stay home, there’s really nothing out there that you need to see. The officials that have been able to get to places have taken pictures, and they will let you see it,” the mayor said. “Our social media has just gone wild with crazy rumors and really, just pretty stupid stuff.
“And what that has done is take resources away from serious things that need to be paid attention to. So if anyone takes one thing away from this, let the officials do their job.”
Engdahl noted it might be more than a week before it’s clear what all this water has meant, and will mean for all of the county. With that said, though, he said leaders have prepared the best they possibly can.
“It’s been well-planned and a team effort,” Engdahl said. “Nobody knows what Mother Nature is going to do. So you kind of plan for the worst and hope for the best.”
Sam Pimper is the news editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.