NET documentary depicts drama and recovery from 2019 floods

And The Floods Came, a new NET News documentary
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September 5, 2019 - 9:06pm

While the floodwaters were still receding across Nebraska, NET News made a commitment to begin documenting the clean-up and recovery and seek out the stories of the people who faced this unprecedented disaster head-on.

The result is And The Floods Came – Nebraska 2019 premiering Sunday, September 8 (9:00 PM Central Time). Jack Williams sat down with the producer of the program, NET News Senior Producer Bill Kelly, to talk about the focus and scope of the documentary.

Jack Williams: Bill, NET made the decision to begin production of a television documentary while events were unfolding. Early on, what was your approach to the project?

Bill Kelly: Honestly, Jack, at first we had no idea. We just knew we wanted to do something, that it was going to be an important enough story to share. It was clear from the start it would be impossible to tell the story of every county and every community. We knew we would be talking about the failure of Spencer Dam, for instance, and what happened next in Boyd and Knox Counties. From there, it seemed logical to be just following the rivers. You have streams that feed from the three branches of the Loup. So, we visited towns like Dannebrog and Saint Edward, monitored what happened when the Loup passed into the Platte River, and later where it meets the Elkhorn, and the tremendous problems in Fremont, and Valley, and Waterloo.

Jack: What set of circumstances made this particular flooding unusual?

Bill: When it came to forecasting this storm, everybody knew it was coming. We had days notice. I think people tend to forget that. The initial storm was on March 13th. The blizzard and the rain combination arrived after this long freeze. The ground was rock hard, and the streams were full of ice. All that runoff flooded nearly every creek and stream in Northeastern Nebraska. This was historic. Nobody had seen water levels like this, because of the amount of runoff. Then in the days that follow, because of all this water coming in, of course the Platte and the Missouri reached their record levels as well.

Videographer Chris Flanery collects footage of the Loup River outside of Saint Paul, Nebraska. 
Saint Edward resident Kandee Dohrme shares what happened the night of the floods with videographer Brian Seifferlien and audio engineer Erin Green. 

NET drone pilot Tyler Kersting prepares to shoot aerial video along a flood-damaged road near Genoa, Nebraska.

Flanery (left) and NET producer Bill Kelly at the damaged Loup Power diversion dam. (Photos: NET News)


Jack: With so many possible directions you could have taken the show, how did you manage to narrow the focus?

Bill: I thought we would be doing a show primarily about recovery efforts and then, as we traveled around, we discovered there was a lot more documentation of this event than we'd realized at the time. We were meeting people with tremendous amounts of video and still photos. These were people who experienced the event firsthand. I think everyone listening probably saw some of these astonishing videos on Facebook and Twitter of, for instance, the ice flows coming through the town of Niobrara or water rising in main streets and the like. We include those in the program, but we also try to add some context, so that people get the story behind those videos. We literally place them on a map so, people can see where it was and and how it occurred at the time.

Jack: Any examples?

Bill: For instance, early on, we came across some amazing drone footage of the dam and the canal that feeds the hydroelectric plants run by Loop Public Power District. The flooding and the ice from the Loup River cut channels completely around that diversion dam. It sent millions of gallons of water everywhere. It was really impressive video that was shot primarily as kind of surveillance videos by the Power District itself. We were able to use that to tell the story of the efforts to save that diversion dam, talk to the employees who were there at the time. It's quite a story. This is $20 million worth of damage. Not very many people have been talking about that one event that has been so costly and so important in Central Nebraska.

Jack: You spent a lot of time on the road with editor Chris Flanery. Is there one place or scene that sticks out in your mind as something that you'll never forget?

Bill: We didn't get up to Niobrara until maybe a week and a half after this storm and the failure of the Spencer Dam. Ordinarily, when that much time passes, you don't see anything. When we arrive these huge blocks of ice were still there. It was creepy. It was really amazing to see the astonishing level of damage that was still in evidence. It kind of sent a chill down, even having seen the videos and the photos previously.

Jack: You've continued to follow up the last few months. How is recovery going, in your mind? What have you seen?

Bill: It depends on who you talk to and in what community. The big things have been taken care of. America's pretty good about getting major highways and bridges back in place, and we've seen that here in Nebraska. Infrastructure in the rural areas? That depends. A summers worth of rain has kept a lot of the county roads in really tough shape. You can see with some of them that they're almost un-drivable still. Individual projects, like trying to get full water service back to Boyd County, have been stubbornly slow. It looks like they're making progress. Also, with the water treatment plants along the Missouri River, some of those are just now getting back online. When they say it was going to take years, it's going to take years.

Jack: What about individual homes and businesses?

Bill: We've seen some significant victories of people getting their businesses up and running and people getting back in their homes, but there's still so many people who are unable to occupy their homes because they've been declared unsafe. In some of those cases, they need to make significant improvements, because they live on the floodplain. You have to make those improvements. They're expensive. Some of these people can't afford it. We've talked to people who are living in homes that they aren't supposed to be occupying.

Jack: A lot of hard work here. Are you pleased with how the program came out?

Bill: I'm really pleased with it. I hope what people take away from it is getting a broader context of how those events unfolded. Everything happened at once on that day. We're hoping that by stepping back and taking a big picture look, people will get a much better understanding of what the floods of 2019 meant to the state.

Jack: The new documentary, And The Floods Came, premieres at 9:00 PM Central on Sunday on NET Television. Bill Kelly, thanks for your time today.

Bill: Thank you, Jack.

EDITOR’S NOTE:  This is a transcript of the original interview, with some edits made to adjust length and clarity.




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