Nemaha County waits for the water to come

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June 14, 2011 - 7:00pm

I started my tour of southeast Nebraska in Indian Cave State Park on the boundary between Nemaha and Richardson Counties. The park was almost empty but that had more to do with it being mid-week. Still it's really hard to tell that a there's a major natural disaster unfolding. There are two roads closed in the park and that's where you can tell the river is on the attack. The road to the boat ramp is submerged. Poking above the water are a few directional signs and vegetation where the road bed lies. A locked gate also turns away campers on the road that actually accesses the namesake for the park: the Indian Cave. Minnows have taken over where ordinarily tourists would be driving or walking.

Bill Kelly/NET News

What made the trip worth it for any visitor were the migrating butterflies. Dozens of them in a surprising range of colors, had taken over the warm pavement where the cars could no longer drive. Access to the historic Indian Cave has been cut off by Missouri River flooding

The flood waters were still far enough away that it wasn't even the lead story on the local radio station. In the car heading north, you see none of the high water. The rolling hills of Nemaha County shoot up quickly from the lowlands, so most homes and farms will never be in danger. It's not until I turn onto County Road 652 and drive down a steep hill that there is evidence of how much lowland farm land is already under water. A small shoreline of sorts is made up of the last few rows of recently planted crops where the river is still advancing. A line of grain storage bins are right on the water's edge. They have obviously been cleared out ahead of the flood.

Some floods start with a lot of heavy rain. Since most of this water will come from mountain snow melt, the warnings started a couple of weeks ago. On higher ground, Danny Lundy is standing in his front yard when I pull into his driveway. He got the word that some of his land would be inundated while enjoying Memorial Day weekend with his family. He knew it was only a matter of time once he "heard that the Dakotas were going to have record high water." Lundy rents a small number of acres to farm. He boasts that "My family's owned this since it was purchased from the Indians." Some of that land is high and dry. The acres already under water are part of the federal Conservation Reserve Program.He's not concerned about the finances of a flood since the lowland acres are "in the government program. I get paid whether it's under water or not. Doesn't affect me at all."

Lots of other farmers have flooded acres that are in production, and thousands of acres more that are threatened by the high water to come.

Danny Lundy says we can get a good view of the river valley from the hilltop on his property. My car would not have been a good fit for the wash-board road up to the bluffs, so Lundy offers to drive.

Using a foot long screw driver jammed in the ignition, Danny forces his temperamental pick-up to the top of hill. His daughter, riding between us, says quietly "this truck always scares me."


Photos: Bill Kelly

Photos of the Missouri River lowlands in Southeast Nebraska

View Nemaha County Flood Tour in a larger map

Google Map prepared by NET News

A map of locations visited during the Nemaha County tour.

Danny's right about the view. Below we see how the Missouri River has already spread far beyond its banks. Through a thick, humid haze Danny points to the east. "The river is over there at that tree line. The other side of the tree line." All of the water right in front of us has spilled out of the Missouri's banks. The actual channel is about a mile past that. The only thing breaking through the murky water that's spilled out of the river bank are parallel rows of trees lining what might be a road.

"If it gets what they say it's going to get," Lundy tells me, looking east, "that little island there, where you see the trees, It's going to get to where you just see the tops of the trees."

The long time residents of Nemaha County are people who are used to flooding. Serious floods are on record from the earliest recorded history of settlers here. The city of Peru was cut in half by the Missouri. The town of Nemaha had to be relocated and the village of St. Deroin vanished. The flood waters still to come make this flood one for the history books for a county with a history of huge floods.

I drive up to Brownville,the lovely little town proud of its ties to history and the fine arts. It had started to rain.

I was going to head out to the restaurant and riverboat that a number of people said could be threatened, but the river road had already been shut down. I hear later about the frantic effort underway to build a sandbag fortress around the restaurant.

While I'm parked and looking at the water filling the park on the other side of the "road closed" sign, a pick up pulls up, trying to pull into the blocked drive-way. After I move my car, the pick-up owner, clearly not pleased with the gawkers regularly stopping, comes back out and pounds "NO PARKING" signs into his lawn.

It turns out the driver is George Neubert, a sculptor with an national reputation. The drive leads to his studio in a century old renovated home. He arrived for one last pre-flood check of his studio and library. He tells me "the worst part(about the water) is that it will stay around" for weeks after the river crests. He's taken most of my books and manuscripts out of the library and put them in storage.

What he's leaving behind is a lot of his artwork. Some of his granite and bronze sculptures have soaked in the Missouri River water before. We walk over to a stone that resembles a half an avocado and a metal bar, which he lifts up to show me.

"Here's a piece here. Granite," Neuberg tells me. "I can leave all that there all that there and hose it down if it goes under because you're looking at solid bronze." He drops the bronze bar, shaped to look like a stick. It makes a solid clang' against the granite base. "That's not going to go anywhere," Neuberg shrugs as he walks away.

It's no small irony to the artist that the river he was drawn to as a muse keeps challenging him and threatening his studio. "One reason I probably picked this 20 some years ago was because of its relationship to the river. I just didn't know it was going to be quite so intimate." He laughs deeply.

The president of Brownville's town council is not laughing. Marty Hayes spent the past few days preparing the water treatment plant for the flood. It and the Co-op's grain storage facility it's next to are now encircled by a loose dirt levee. "Last week," he tells me "they put another two to three feet of dirt on the dike."

That's three feet above the height of the temporary dike they built in 1993 to hold the Missouri back. In his dual-role of the town's maintenance expert and village board president, Hayes helped build the dike in 93 too. It worked and the wastewater system held.

It may not be fair, but he tells me one thing that would help is for a levee or two to fail on Iowa's eastern edge of the river. That would give the rising water another place to go and reduce the chances it would top the flood control walls here. I point out that your victory could mean somebody else's misery. "Yeah, I guess so," he says shaking his head.

On the other hand, flooding on the Iowa side could also hurt Brownville. Marty Hayes stopped to talk to me on the town's Main Street lined with quaint businesses that look a bit frilly for rural Nebraska. This quaint, historic town relies a lot on tourists, many who come from the east by way of Interstate 29 across the Missouri River bridge. If that dyke across the river breaks," Hayes worried, "you'll have water from here to the Interstate. People won't come unless they come from this side. Our tourist trade this summer could be way down."

My last stop is on the river levee just east of Peru, maintained by the Army Corp of Engineers.It's a place where, late at night, the local police will often chase away kids from Peru State looking for a place to drink. Ordinarily I'd be able to drive right up to the boat ramp on the Missouri River. A half mile from the ramp, and the road is under water.

A little later I stop and talk to a father and son unloading hay. They had spent the morning on a friends farm on the protected side of the levee. There had been a small leak, and they helped surround the small pockets of water, called sand boils, with sand bags. Even if the water does not come over the top of the levee, there are real fears that the tons of water could force its way through or under the dikes where there are weak spots.

Throughout the day there were two common messages. First, many people are not happy with the way the Army Corps of Engineers has managed the Missouri River flows this year.

Second, even if the people here are used to the flooding they've before, they haven't seen is what's up river and headed this way.



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