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River of No Return

How austerity and climate change put northeastern Nebraska underwater

Willard Ruzicka saw it all in a dream. The Niobrara River, which runs a few hundred feet from his family’s farmhouse in the unincorporated village of Pishelville, Nebraska, had topped its banks. But instead of water edging toward his house from the north, the dream river—somewhere upstream, in the direction of Spencer Dam—had jumped the channel and cut a new course from the south. Water came rushing down the road, stranding the house as the river closed in from all sides. “I woke up and was just shaking,” Ruzicka remembers now. It was after 2 a.m., midwinter, the braided river through the trees still thickly iced and unmoving. Outside the second-story window of his bedroom, the moon was bright above the snow. “I don’t know why you sense some of these things,” he said, “what it is in your mind that brings these things up.”

Looking back, it’s easy enough to see the signs. Ruzicka has lived all of his 72 years on this same farm, where his family has been for twice as long, and he knew it was an exceptional year. Nebraska had a historic amount of snowfall, reminiscent of the blizzard-stricken winter of 1949. As spring approached, the days began to alternate between snow and rain, swelling the river and hardening the ice. In February, at the start of calving season, Ruzicka watched his mother cows out in the sleet and blowing cold, struggling to keep their newborns dry and warm. The dream came back to him. That night, gathered at the dinner table with his wife and 40-year-old son, he offered what seemed like an exaggeration. “The way this weather is,” he said, “the river is going to be at the mailbox.”

So when the forecast in the middle of March predicted the arrival of a “bomb cyclone” centered over Nebraska, dropping two to three inches of rainfall in a matter of hours, Ruzicka knew that he had to get everything he could—livestock and equipment—to higher ground. “They talked about a lot of rain,” he said, “so we had our suspicions.” The night before the storm was expected to hit, he drove most of his herd above the creek and then brought his tractors, a feed wagon, and a grain drill over. He moved his bulls up to higher pasture on his neighbor’s land, and then herded his mother cows with their newborns to a low-roofed barn. “It was cold. It was snowing,” he said. “We was putting them in pens to save them.”

Ruzicka doesn’t want to talk too much about it now, but in the back of his mind, he knew: The Spencer Dam was 92 years old, and state inspectors in April 2018 had classified the risk stemming from its disrepair as “significant.” That classification mandated enough pricey repairs that the Nebraska Public Power District was in the process of transferring the dam to a group of locally controlled natural resources districts. Ruzicka also knew that that river had run twelve feet deep in its banks when he was a boy, but now, due to decades of silting and insufficient dredging, the surface of the water ran barely a foot below the river’s edge. What he didn’t know was that the state inspection also warned that “deficiencies exist which could lead to dam failure during rare, extreme storm events”—or that the power company had workers on the dam that night, opening floodgates in the hopes of keeping the whole structure from washing out.

Sometime before 5:30 a.m., the remaining gates jammed, frozen closed by ice, and the dam started to crumble. The workers issued an emergency warning as they evacuated, and a dispatcher from the sheriff’s department almost immediately called Ruzicka. “You have to get out now,” the voice on the phone said. “I grabbed two things,” Ruzicka remembered, “my cell phone and my billfold.” By the time he got to his pickup, parked in the gravel circle drive in front of his house, the overflowing water was already more than a foot deep. Some 20 miles upriver, the 29-foot-high earth-and-concrete dam gave way, letting loose an eleven-foot wall of water carrying car-size chunks of ice. As Ruzicka’s truck reached the end of the windbreak and crested near the road, the water came roaring in. “When this thing hit, we didn’t have no time, and the poor cows were in them pens,” he says now. The mother cows somehow survived. The calves all drowned in the rising floodwaters. The bulls were swept away.

When Jeff Uhlir, a neighbor who rents grazing land to Ruzicka on a bluff above the river, got down to the farm, he found Willard standing by his truck at the top of the road, watching as ice floes crushed and carried off his grain bins, his barn, his tractor shed. Today, you can see where the ice stripped his mature, tall trees of their bark up to ten feet high and snapped the smaller ones like matchsticks, drove floes through the backside of the house and filled the kitchen, ripped the siding from the original homestead house. The damage exposed the rough-hewn timbers cut by Willard’s great-grandfather when he arrived from Czechoslovakia to this very spot in the 1860s. All of it was scoured away in a matter of minutes.

“Everything I own is in my pockets,” Ruzicka told Uhlir.

Within days, politicians arrived, as if carried in the flood’s wake. But as awareness of the scale of the disaster worked its way up the echelons of power, sustained concern seemed to grow more distant. Nebraska state Senator Tim Gragert and Nebraska Farm Bureau president Steve Nelson came directly to Ruzicka’s farm to reassure him that help was on the way. Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts and U.S. Senator Ben Sasse toured the town of Niobrara, just downstream. “But they never come here,” Ruzicka said. Vice President Mike Pence arrived in Omaha to see damage to Offutt Air Force Base, posing for a smiling photo with Ricketts and U.S. Representative Don Bacon. But Pence mostly spent his time on the ground in Iowa, countering criticisms from Democratic presidential hopefuls. Online, people tweeted their support with the hashtag #NebraskaStrong. The Nebraska National Guard airdropped round bales of hay to feed cattle whose pastures had been destroyed. Church groups and Rotarians sent truckloads of supplies to flood-ravaged towns all along the Niobrara, Elkhorn, Platte, and Missouri rivers. Yet few elected officials or public figures seemed eager to address the twin culprits of the disaster.

First, generations of neglect to key pieces of infrastructure have allowed dams, levees, and dykes across the Midwest and Great Plains to collapse. Of Nebraska’s 137 levees monitored by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, fewer than half were constructed with federal oversight and support; not one is currently maintained by the Corps. Of the dozen levees on the Missouri River that failed in March, seven had been classified as “minimally acceptable” nearly a decade ago—and not one has been reinspected since. Three others had never been inspected at all. Maintenance and monitoring were entirely left up to the small towns that they protect; upkeep and improvement has depended on trying to persuade voters to approve expensive bond issues or asking local politicians to approve tax hikes in the midst of the worst rural economic downturn since the Farm Crisis of the 1980s.

In recent years, when a community like Fremont, Nebraska, or nearby Inglewood, has reached out for federal assistance, asking the Corps of Engineers what it would cost to bring its levees and viaducts up to snuff, the city’s leaders often got bad news. In early 2010, Corps officials made a public presentation to the Fremont, Inglewood, and county officials. They warned that Fremont’s earthen levee had become overgrown with tall trees—and this meant that, in the event of a major flood carrying ice floes, the trees could be uprooted and tear holes in the levee, allowing floodwaters to course through. The Corps assembled a proposal for upgrading the system, but it came with the shocking price tag of nearly $28 million from the city. Ironically, conversations about that project were stalled by major flooding in 2011 and again in 2015. Both times, the levees mostly held—and so the local political establishment was able to postpone reckoning with the bigger deluge in the making. What’s more, residents in low-lying areas paid less than $1 million in flood insurance each year; a new levee, the city reasoned, would take at least a generation to pay for. It just wasn’t cost-effective. 

But then in March, floes from upriver ice jams tore through the levees exactly as predicted—and when floodwaters finally receded in southern Fremont and the adjoining community of Inglewood, the estimated damage came to $15 million for affected businesses and homes (including the house of Senator Sasse on a Platte back channel). At least another $25 million would have to go toward repairing the damage to federal roads, including Highways 30 and 275, with the state estimating that the costs could be much higher. Taken together, outlays may eventually cost double what it would have taken to upgrade the levee and viaduct—but now those expenditures will be drawn from FEMA and the Department of Transportation’s disaster funds, not a local bond issue.

Still, requesting federal aid will force small towns to face a second—and larger—reality. In 2016, after its two “historic” floods in five years, Fremont invited the Corps of Engineers back to assess flood risks and citywide readiness. The Corps report estimated that another once-in-a-century flood, known as a 100-year event, would inflict $60 million worth of damage (a strikingly accurate projection). A 500-year flood would cause $200 million worth of destruction. In case those possibilities sounded remote, the Corps prepared a slideshow presentation for the city council and noted that Nebraska, as of 2015, had recorded 27 major flood events in its history, and 13 of those had come in the last 20 years. One slide in the presentation in July 2017 was dedicated to a question that the Corps wanted the city council to consider: “Is this the new national normal?”

If so, that query opens on to a still bigger one: How do we, as a nation, ready ourselves? How do we get small and medium-size towns in deep red, rural states to undertake rebuilding and upkeep projects that are based on predictions for climate change and shifting weather patterns over the next 50 to 100 years? Such forward planning seems nearly impossible in a political environment where, just five years ago, Nebraska’s previous Republican governor and Republican-controlled state Legislature commissioned a state-level climate change impact study but tried to prevent the University of Nebraska scientists writing the report from mentioning human activity as even a contributing factor to global warming. (The scientists refused and released their own report directly linking climate change, and the wrenching destruction brought on by rising global temperatures, to human enterprise.)

“The sad part about it is: The Corps of Engineers was in here working on the levees,” said Curt Richey. “But last year, the city of Inglewood voted on whether or not to maintain the levees—and they voted no.” On March 14, when floodwaters started pouring into his Inglewood neighborhood, Richey and his wife, Sherrie, were putting the last touches on staging their house before listing it for sale. Watching the flooding arrive in surging waves, Richey knew right away: Every wall of water was a levee breaking upriver—and soon the ice and current would take out Fremont’s outdated levee, too. “We got to go,” he told his wife. When they were finally able to return five days later, their finished basement had five feet of standing water. “How do you live on a river,” he asked, “and not maintain the levees?”

About 6 o’clock on the morning of March 14, a call from Andy Colvin, the city administrator of Norfolk, Nebraska, came in to Mayor Josh Moenning. Colvin was standing on the levee on the North Fork of the Elkhorn, watching the water rise in the city’s flood-control channel. “Osmond and Pierce had already been hit hard,” Moenning said, “but the North Fork hadn’t crested yet.” Colvin estimated that the water was then at somewhere between 90 and 95 percent of the channel’s capacity—about a foot and a half from overtopping. “That’s when we said, ‘We have to get people out of here,’” Moenning said. Within an hour, police were going door to door, and Moenning had called a press conference, urging residents in the northeastern corner of the town of 25,000 to evacuate immediately. People began pouring from their homes, heading to stay with family or friends; about 1,000 were briefly displaced to five shelters around the city.

But it turned out to be an abundance of caution. As levees, dams, and bridges broke across Nebraska, Norfolk’s levee held without any breaches. “Infrastructure investment, in the end, saved the day for Norfolk,” Moenning wrote in an op-ed in the Omaha World-Herald after the flood. The key factor for the city was not only spending on upkeep but overbuilding its flood-mitigation system in the first place. When the levee was constructed in the 1960s, the Corps of Engineers estimated that it would cost $4.25 million—$1.4 million of which would have to come from the city. The amount was more than the legal limit for municipal bond measures at the time, so Norfolk had to lobby the state Legislature to allow an exception. The city didn’t want to be in the position of having to repeat that process if the Corps’ estimates for increased river flow turned out to be low, so Norfolk officials insisted on building the levees higher than what the engineers said was necessary. “And I’m glad they did,” Moenning said.

Now, the mayor said, the time has come for Nebraska’s elected officials to show similar foresight and political courage. It’s not a challenge that Moenning issues lightly. He grew up in a conservative family on a cattle farm in the tiny town of Battle Creek, outside Norfolk. After graduating from the University of Nebraska with a journalism degree, he launched his political career as a legislative aide to Mike Foley, now Nebraska’s lieutenant governor. He then took over as communications director for Republican U.S. Representative Jeff Fortenberry, and finally took a variety of roles, including spokesman, for Nebraska’s current governor, Pete Ricketts. When Moenning moved back to Norfolk to run for city council and then for mayor, he was aided by Mike Flood, the district’s state legislator, who was then Nebraska’s speaker of the House.

But Moenning has shown himself to be unusual among Nebraska’s corporate-friendly Republican elite. He now bluntly insists on applying conservative market economics to issues such as climate change. On his own family’s farm, he has helped convert the beef operation from a traditional grain-fed feedlot to grass-fed, antibiotic-free Piedmontese cattle. He also serves as director of New Power Nebraska, a company that he founded to promote the development of wind energy. To his mind, these new directions are common sense, because they are supported by consumer demand—whether it’s for premium meat or renewable energy. And he objects to using incentives and tax breaks to extend the lifespan of old ideas. “Propping up coal plants? That’s conservative?” he asked quizzically. He said that the meaning of “conservative,” to him, is simple: “Don’t waste anything.” And right now, that means not wasting Nebraska’s wind resources, when the state’s coal-burning plants currently have to bring in train shipments from the mines of Wyoming.

“For farmers to not only be food producers but energy producers creates opportunities in rural places that never existed before,” Moenning said. “As we go about the work of fixing substations and downed power lines, let’s think about how we improve the grid and help accommodate growing market demands for clean energy—and recognize, finally, our renewable energy production potential.” In the meantime, lease payments on wind turbines inject a steady stream of income into farm operations; each turbine creates the equivalent of a part-time job in installation and maintenance. Northeast Community College in Norfolk has the state’s only program to train wind turbine technicians—an initiative that helps bolster the economies of small towns across the region. “Wind turbine service technician is the fastest-growing job in the state of Nebraska,” Moenning said. “And these jobs are located in small towns, like Elgin and Petersburg and Neligh. Fifteen, 20, 25 jobs in a town like that? It’s huge.”

In making these changes part of the flood-relief conversation, Moenning hearkens back to a conference that he attended last year, where Tom Vilsack, the former Iowa governor and secretary of agriculture under President Obama, outlined the challenges in talking to farmers about climate change. Vilsack said that when the U.S. Department of Agriculture offered materials helping farmers prepare for global warming, only 20 percent requested information. When the same materials were offered as guidance on preparing for weather variability, the response jumped to 80 percent. “It’s about communication,” Moenning said, “rising above the political nonsense that drives discourse on both sides and talking about finding solutions.”

To the mayor, this means more than merely rebuilding; it means turning the disaster into an opportunity to transcend old divides. Moenning believes that with this latest climate disaster, the moment of reckoning may have finally arrived. “Circumstances of the last ten years,” he said, “have caused people to adjust their thinking according to that new reality.” He points to the massive flood of the Elkhorn River in 2010, followed the very next year by an equally destructive flood on the Missouri. “Those floods were considered floods of historic proportions—100-year floods or possibly 500-year floods—and here we are, less than ten years later, having gone through another event of similar magnitude or greater. It’s just the reality we’re living in now. And it would serve our best interests to recognize that what once were considered 100-year floods could, in fact, be ten- or 15- or 20-year floods now.”

It’s hard to share Moenning’s optimism for the future. States like Nebraska, no matter what is thrown at them, seem constitutionally resistant to change. For all the lionizing of the globe-trotting, can-do spirit of their pioneer ancestors, most farmers and ranchers are foundationally attached to a sense of identity that not only springs from their land and the crops and livestock that they raise but also is rooted in their communities and family histories. It’s well-established folk wisdom in such places that you don’t talk about politics or religion at the dinner table—a bromide that arises from the recognition that political conversions are as rare as religious ones. And as the political divide has shifted from liberal-conservative to urban-rural, questions of identity have only intensified. Many rural areas are now 80 percent or more Republican, which means that agricultural states, even those with major metropolitan areas within their boundaries, have become virtual locks for Republican candidates for the foreseeable future.

In the last generation, Nebraska has elected just one Democrat to the U.S. Senate and one to the House—for a single, two-year term. We haven’t had a Democratic governor in 20 years. And though the state Legislature is officially nonpartisan, it has been controlled by the Republican Party for as long as anyone can remember. Amid such political domination, what incentive is there for Republicans to alter their basic governing platform? And what resources are the Democratic National Committee likely to commit, when the political pendulum seems never to swing? Perhaps, in a state consigned to virtual one-party rule, the best hope for tackling climate change emerges from forward-looking Republicans like Mayor Moenning. Or perhaps there’s a moment of epochal change simmering, unseen.

In March, just days before the floodwaters hit the middle of the country, two political science professors at Iowa State University, Olga Chyzh and Robert B. Urbatsch, released the initial results of a study examining shifting voting patterns between the 2016 and 2018 elections. The professors open by noting that international policy rarely has much short-term effect on voting habits, and that trade policy shows especially little impact. However, the effects of President Trump’s trade war with China and the subsequent imposition of steep tariffs on agricultural exports has had a sizable and direct impact on rural communities. To measure whether that economic downturn was affecting voting, they looked at House races—and came away with a stunning result. “Counties that are reliant on soy production even to a small degree have shifted against the Republican Party by anywhere between 25 and 50 percentage points more than counties that produce no soy,” they wrote. While they acknowledge that the shift may have come from depressed turnout as much as longer-term party realignment, the study still suggests massive dissatisfaction with how the Republican Party has been handling issues that affect rural economies.

This new mood of political instability in the heartland concerns more than just trade. Prices for corn and soybeans plummeted after supports for renewable fuels were halted by the Republican-controlled Congress. In March, for the third straight year, Trump’s budget proposal requested severe cuts to USDA programs—zeroing out rural development and renewable energy dollars and proposing deep cuts to crop insurance, price-stabilization programs, and payments to farmers who set aside land for conservation purposes. Now, Senate Republicans have stalled a $13.6 billion bill for flood relief to Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, and Missouri, after Trump told them, in a private lunch meeting, that he objected to a provision in the bill that would extend Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program funding for Puerto Rico. According to The Washington Post, the president told aides he didn’t want “another single dollar going to the island”—even though the snap program is a major boost to Midwestern farm economies as well.

All of this would seem to suggest that farm country may be more open to Democratic leadership than it has been since the days of FDR. But Jane Kleeb, the chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party, cautions that candidates from her party are not going to win elections by default. Kleeb is currently writing a book advising Democratic electoral hopefuls on how to build grassroots support in farm country. The bottom line: If you hope to make progress in agricultural states, you need to put boots on the ground. “Rural communities are often forgotten, and the recent flooding shows this fact up close,” Kleeb said, noting that the entire Democratic field is feverishly campaigning in Iowa, but not one Democratic presidential candidate came to Nebraska to survey flood damage. “Family farmers and ranchers were already living on razor-thin margins because of corporate consolidation, trade wars, and industrial agricultural stepping on their necks,” she said. “Now, we have a moment, just like we did in the 1930s, to show up for rural communities as they are facing new issues—from confronting climate change to creating infrastructure that can sustain the 500-year floods that are now coming every 25 years. But we have to show up.”

What if members of both parties viewed this latest flood, not as a boondoggle or political football, but as a legitimate opportunity to reimagine and rebuild the middle of the country? What if Republicans heeded Moenning’s suggestion that we lay fiber-optic lines and expand rural broadband under federal highways and roads as part of the rebuilding project? Or what if we took him up on his idea of making the rural grid better suited to wind and solar inputs, as part of repairing damaged substations and power lines? What if Democrats took Kleeb’s advice and showed up for rural families, representing their interests on trade policy and on renewable fuel standards, or if they pushed for corporate regulation that afforded farmers a greater voice in how our agricultural system is built?

We’re a long way from the kind of dramatic shift that might spur either political party to address climate change in earnest. But as fires intensify and floodwaters swell, as drought cycles shorten and sea levels rise, we may soon face a point of genuine political redefinition. Unless we find a path forward together, the odds are that we’ll find ourselves alone, like Willard Ruzicka in his dream, seeing the waters rising on all sides while the island that was once our home shrinks beneath us.