The best news about the Nebraska and Iowa winter outlook issued this week is that it's a toss-up.
But if you need anything else to fret over in 2020, consider this: Conditions are tilting the odds toward a colder, snowier than normal winter across the northern Plains and a warmer, drier than normal winter across the Southern U.S.
In other words: The upper Missouri River watershed could see heavier than normal snowpack, potentially resulting in heavier than normal runoff next spring — at the same time that drought could be creeping northward from an increasingly parched southern U.S.
Closer to home, it could be a roller-coaster winter, with the weather alternating between cold and wet and warm and dry before it settles into a pattern. (Or, as some like to call it: winter in the Great Plains.)
Mike Halpert, deputy director of the Climate Prediction Center, said Thursday that the projections for this winter are being driven by La Niña conditions in the equatorial Pacific Ocean.
A La Niña is defined by cooler than normal waters in the central Pacific. On average, when those waters are cool, winter is harsher across the northwest and north-central U.S. and warmer and drier than normal across the southern U.S.
Mike Moritz, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Hastings, said La Niña conditions could bring an increased frequency of fronts moving through and a slight increase in windy days. If the weather proves to be warmer than normal, that most likely will happen across the southern part of the state, he said. And a La Niña means that the region might see more precipitation in December and January than in February, which is favored to be drier.
"As a whole, La Niña winters generally tend to be a bit drier overall, especially for southern areas of the Plains," he said.
The Climate Prediction Center, which issues seasonal projections, is a sister agency of the National Weather Service. Both are part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The center's annual winter outlook was issued Thursday.
Because Nebraska and Iowa are situated in the heart of the continent and sandwiched between the two opposing patterns, it's difficult to predict what might happen here.
The historic 2011 flood on the Missouri River was preceded by a La Niña winter, and that flooding was caused by extreme snowfall and spring rains in the upper Missouri River basin. (By contrast, the catastrophic flooding of 2019 occurred following an El Niño winter, defined by a warmer than normal equatorial Pacific. Those tend to juice up storms across the southern U.S., systems that can feed into Nebraska and Iowa.)
Halpert and others caution that other large-scale climate patterns may yet appear that alter the nature of this winter. The value of looking at El Niño and La Niña conditions is that they develop slowly over many months and have continental scale impacts, which means that they have use in seasonal forecasting.
Other potent drivers of winter weather are atmospheric patterns in the Arctic and North Atlantic, but those surge onto the scene with just a few weeks' notice, so there's no way to know about them far enough ahead to incorporate into a seasonal forecast.
Other items from Thursday's national and regional weather briefings:
• The six large reservoirs on the upper Missouri River are holding more water now than they do on average at this time of year, according to Laura Edwards, South Dakota's state climatologist. But the reservoirs are holding less water than they did at this time before the 2011 flood and far less than they did going into the 2018-19 winter, she said.
• Many factors influence flood potential on the Missouri River, the Army Corps of Engineers has said. These include the amount, timing and location of snowfall as well as the rate and timing of snowmelt. The timing, amount and location of rain are also a factor. Storage capacity in the reservoirs plays a role in their ability to hold back runoff, but that too depends on the location of the runoff. (Rain or snow has to fall above the dams, not below them).
• Soils in this part of the country are significantly drier going into this winter than they were in 2018-19, said Dennis Todey, a U.S. Department of Agriculture climatologist. So when soils freeze, they will be more "porous" than they were in early 2019, when the soggy ground froze into a
• concretelike surface, he said. This could lessen flood potential by allowing the ground to absorb more runoff.
• Because soils are so dry, and drought is forecast to persist or worsen in the months ahead, concern is beginning to develop about soil not recharging with moisture. Much of Nebraska and western Iowa are already in drought, so a La Niña winter increases the risk of having dry soil going into the planting season, Todey said.
• As of this week's National DroughtMonitor, 47% of the territory in the Lower 48 states was in drought, the highest level since September 2013, when the country was coming out of the flash drought of 2012.
"As a whole, La Niña winters generally tend to be a bit drier overall, especially for southern areas of the Plains."
Mike Moritz, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Hastings
Omaha residents have been calling the city with questions now that more than half the city has received two new 96-gallon carts for trash, yard waste and recycling.
The new covered carts can't be used until Nov. 30, when FCC Environmental Services takes over solid-waste collection from Waste Management, the company currently contracted by the city.
Until that date, people must continue to use their old trash cans and green recycling bins. A recycling event for old cans will be held after the switch.
More than 156,000 carts— about 54% of all new carts — had been delivered as of Thursday, said Jim Kee, quality control manager for the city's Public Works Department.
Crews have been delivering carts across Omaha, starting in the western part of the city and moving east. This week, they're wrapping up the area between 120th and 42nd Streets; next week, they will begin the final round of deliveries in the eastern part of the city.
Kee said the deliveries are scheduled so that new carts aren't dropped off on the same day as a neighborhood's trash collection.
Through Nov. 29, Waste Management will collect up to nine containers of trash and yard waste from each residence. Those nine containers can consist of any combination of yard waste and trash, in cans or brown yard waste bags.
On four Saturdays in October and November, the city will operate drop-off locations for yard waste and old tires. Those events are happening in place of a traditional fall cleanup event.
Once FCC takes over Nov. 30, yard waste and trash will be collected together in one of the 96-gallon carts. The other cart, for recycling, will be picked up every other week.
Come 2021, FCC will offer unlimited curbside collection of yard waste during a six-week period in the spring and fall. During that period, a separate yard waste truck will collect paper yard waste bags at no extra charge.
During the rest of the year, people can purchase $2 stickers for paper yard waste bags. Each bag must have its own sticker.
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OMAHA DROP-OFF EVENTS FOR YARD WASTE AND TIRES
Tranquility North soccer fields, 123rd and Fort Streets. Tires and yard waste. Al Veys Park, 6606 S. 60th St. Yard waste only.
Mission Park, 6110 S. 168th St. Tires and yard waste. Dill Softball Complex, 7002 Military Ave. Yard waste only.
Al Veys Park, 6606 S. 60th St. Tires and yard waste. Tranquility North soccer fields, 123rd and Fort Streets. Yard waste only.
Dill Softball Complex, 7002 Military Ave. Tires and yard waste. Mission Park, 6110 S. 168th St. Yard waste only.
LINCOLN — Nebraska will reimpose a set of public health restrictions as the state's COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations climb to record numbers.
Gov. Pete Ricketts on Friday announced four steps that will go into effect Wednesday and stay in place at least through Nov. 30.
Hospitals will need to protect 10% of their bed and intensive care availability to leave room for incoming COVID-19 patients.
Indoor gatherings in public places must be smaller. They can now go up to 75% of their rated occupancy, but that will drop to 50%. In addition, individual groups at a gathering will be limited to eight per party.
People patronizing bars and restaurants must remain seated, with table sizes limited to eight people.
Wedding and funeral receptions must limit table sizes to eight people.
The new restrictions do not include a statewide mask mandate.
Ricketts said it "pains me" to impose restrictions on people, but the state needs to protect the state's hospital capacity.
He cited the example of Italy, where hospitals became overwhelmed earlier this year as coronavirus cases soared there.
The governor also urged Nebraskans to avoid what he called the "Three C's": crowded places, close contact and confined spaces.
Ricketts' announcement comes as the state has emerged as a hot spot for COVID-19, both in terms of new cases and hospitalizations.
Nebraska on Friday ranked No. 6, ahead of No. 7 Iowa, in terms of new per capita cases over the preceding seven days, according to data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Indeed, the state on Friday was adding COVID-19 cases at an average rate of 37.6 per 100,000 residents, according to the CDC data. That's up from 23.2 on May 8, the earlier peak of COVID-19 cases in Nebraska.
Dr. James Lawler, a director at the University of Nebraska Medical Center's Global Center for Health Security, said: "We have entered a dangerous phase of the pandemic in Nebraska."
In contrast to what was happening in May, where viral outbreaks were concentrated in and around urban areas and cities with meatpacking plants, Lawler said "the epidemic is really widespread across the state."
Some rural counties are reporting a daily average of COVID-19 cases in excess of 70 per 100,000 people per day, Lawler said. That, he said, is well above the rates New York City was experiencing at the peak of its coronavirus cases.
"This is a really serious situation," Lawler said. "We are certainly at risk for our health systems becoming overwhelmed."
Cases tend to lead hospitalizations and deaths by three to four weeks, he said, so the cases the state is seeing now mean trouble later.
But health officials know more about how the virus is transmitted than they did in the spring, Lawler said, and that's through close contact where respiratory secretions can be transmitted to others nearby and by aerosolized particles.
"We know now that eating in a restaurant where there are many people without masks and in close congregation are at significant risk."
Wearing a mask, he said, can be a powerful tool in decreasing the spread.
"Together," Lawler said, "we will be able to reduce transmission and protect vulnerable communities."
To shore up hospital staffing, Ricketts announced that the state would provide up to $40 million from its federal CARES Act funding to help hospitals that treat COVID-19 patients hire traveling nurses and other health care workers to bolster their staffing.
The funding also could be used to provide hazard pay for existing staff in order to cover extra shifts and overtime, said Dr. Gary Anthone, Nebraska's chief medical officer. Twenty-one acute care and children's hospitals statewide would be eligible for the funding.
Ricketts said it's important to preserve hospital capacity not just for coronavirus patients but also for heart attack victims and others who need acute care.
Nebraska Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt said schools are doing a good job having everyone wear masks, but the proper health practices also must be followed outside the school setting.
"We're fighting an uphill battle," he said.
Students enjoy being able to be in school, Blomstedt said. "We are putting that at risk if we cannot slow overall community spread," he said.
In order to keep schools open, he said, people in the community have to follow proper health protocols. It's hard to maintain a safe school environment if the virus is spreading in the community at high rates.
Ricketts noted that if a group of teens is headed to a game, they all should be wearing masks. If they're in a locker room, he said, they should be wearing masks. Ricketts also referenced a large party that was recently held.
More than 300 Gretna High School students were tested for COVID-19 on Thursday after 40 positive cases were traced to one event. A note sent to families by Superintendent Rich Beran said the cases have been traced back to a large gathering outside school on Oct. 3.
In connection with the public health restrictions, the state is joining with the public service campaign around avoiding the "Three C's."
A flyer from the Nebraska Association of Local Health Directors has started circulating on social media. It offers simple advice: Avoid gathering in groups when you can't keep 6 feet of distance, wear a mask when with people you don't live with and avoid enclosed spaces with poor ventilation.
When Watie White liked an Instagram image by Anthony T. Peña back in February, neither artist knew that a simple heart emoji would lead to Omaha's newest, brightest, biggest piece of public art.
Installed on the Millwork Commons building on the corner of 13th and Nicholas Streets in north downtown, the glowing yellow mural features a stylized drawing of 7-year-old Zuri Jensen, fist held high, holding a sign emblazoned with one simple word in capital letters: HOPE.
It took a lot of serendipity for that image to happen, a lot of events coming together in a year marked by a pandemic and racial strife.
It took — and ended up with — a lot of hope.
At the beginning of the year, Peña, a 53-year-old Metro bus driver by day, was feeling disappointed in the progression of his art practice. "I was getting frustrated," he said. "I was seeing all these other artists making a living doing what they love, and I wasn't."
That started to change when White liked one of his images. Peña knew White was an established artist, known for public art projects on buildings around Omaha, as well as a host of other high-profile murals throughout the metro area. Peña reached out and asked White if he'd like to meet.
A mentoring relationship began, with White urging Peña simply to draw what moved him.
Peña did just that, producing drawings influenced by his childhood love of comic book art. It gave him something to focus on when COVID-19 shut down the city, and also provided an opportunity to build his portfolio.
Then came George Floyd's tragic death in late May and the eruption of protests across the U.S., including in Omaha.
Seven-year-old Zuri Jensen was at the protest that took place at 72nd and Dodge Streets on May 29.
Shea and Jeona Jensen took Zuri, and her 11-year-old sister, Irie, to the event.
"I knew we had to be a part of it," Jeona said. "Social justice for all people is a big value for our family. The girls have been marching since they were little. From a very young age, Zuri has wanted to know all about the civil rights movement and Black history."
While at the protest, Zuri was inspired by the passion of the crowd and asked if she could stand on the cab of her father's pickup truck.
"She took off her shoes and climbed up there," Jeona said. "Zuri noticed that people had their fists up and asked if she could do it, too."
Mom said yes, and almost immediately, bystanders began taking photos.
Dalton Carper was one of them. The 23-year-old freelance photojournalist and recent University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate wanted to take part in the protest in a meaningful way. He decided to document it and brought along a new camera his father had given him just one week earlier.
"I was walking around, overwhelmed by my own emotions, when I saw Zuri standing with her fist in the air," Carper recalled. "I literally said, 'Oh, my God,' out loud. I immediately realized how powerful that was."
Rendered in black and white, Carper's image shows the young girl, fist held high, eyes turned skyward. It's a moment in time that captures the tenacious feeling of hope present in the younger generation.
The photojournalist posted the image on Instagram, and it went viral. It even caught the attention of vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris, who shared the image on her own Instagram account, saying, "When I look at this young girl, I see the future."
Her post garnered almost 80,000 likes.
It resonated with Peña, too. "I looked at Dalton's photo, and I kept wondering what the story was behind this little girl. She is the promise of a new generation of hope, and I just really wanted to do something with it."
That something was a reworking of the photo into a graphic representation that included what Peña felt when he looked at the image: Zuri holding a sign with "HOPE" rendered in simple letters.
Peña planned for the background to be green, but he couldn't decide on the right shade. Instead, he used bright yellow as a placeholder.
White told him not to even think about changing it. "It was an accident, but it's cheery and has so many meanings: happiness, joy, creativity and optimism," Peña said.
Originally, the image was going to be included on a mural he and White were planning that would feature people such as Malcolm X, Ernie Chambers and James Scurlock. The mural site fell through, but the image of Zuri had captured the imagination of both artists.
White had an idea. He remembered Shepard Fairey's inspirational "Hope" poster of Barack Obama. He and Peña would do something similar, but this poster would have meaning for Omaha since Zuri was a local resident.
"What I bring to the conversation is the focus of what art can do as a social tool,"White said. "What changes can it influence and affect? We wanted to do something impactful, and I understand impact as making people feel seen. Dalton showed Zuri as a young civil rights leader, and we wanted to build on that empowerment."
White found a printer and donors ready to help sponsor the project, and the duo ended up giving away 200 18-by-24-inch posters. Then another 200. And still another 200, until eventually the number topped more than 650 — each one signed by Peña. They now hang in homes, businesses and classrooms in Omaha and in cities across the country.
They also are included in the permanent collections of the Durham Museum and the Museum of Nebraska Art. A limited run of T-shirts disseminated the image even further. Proceeds have gone to Carper, a college fund for Zuri and North Omaha's Culxr House, a community hub for artists, creatives and entrepreneurs that also provides protest training.
But the biggest iteration of "HOPE" was yet to come.
Jeff Slobotski was one of the hundreds of people who picked up a "HOPE" poster. He also is the vice president of business and ecosystem development for Millwork Commons, a collaborative community designed to support the work of innovators and creators by providing spaces to live, work, create and connect. Spanning 300,000 square feet in north downtown near Hot Shops, the buildings date to the 1880s and have been reimagined as sites for technology, art and design.
Wouldn't it be perfectly fitting, thought Slobotski, to have such a powerful image placed prominently on a Millwork Commons building?
"For me, the image is emblematic of everything going on around racial and social justice in our city. It's an awesome testament to how our city works. People connected around the posters. I started talking to Watie and Anthony about how to make the image even bigger and more publicly visible."
Peña and White jumped at the collaboration, and enlarged the "HOPE" image from its original poster size to 18-by-24 feet.
Omaha artists Bart Vargas, Ang Bennett and Patty Talbert also pitched in and assisted with painting the mural version, as did Zuri. There was the original subject, the inspiration for the photograph and the poster, wearing the T-shirt version of her image, painting the mural.
It was a meta moment for all involved.
Seeing the "HOPE" mural in person, Zuri couldn't help but be overwhelmed. "My mind is literally actually blown!" she enthused in a video shared by her dad.
"It's made our 2020 more positive," Jeona said. "It's been the highlight. What's amazing is all the people we've become connected with. It's the hope we've seen in this community."
Shea said the photo, poster, T-shirt and mural — now collectively known as "The HOPE Project" — all work together to communicate a simple message. "That fist in the air — that's hope. Her youthfulness shows the future that's to come. Zuri thinks she can be a leader and make a difference."
White sees the mural as a love letter of sorts for Omaha. "It's such an expression of collaboration within the community. This is not an overtly political expectation of action. It's hope."
"I think because everyone knows she's a local young lady, it gives the mural more meaning," Peña added. "And it also means things will get better. The future is so bright."
Slobotski agrees. "This is in our DNA and what we're trying to build in Omaha. Young leaders, when given a voice and a platform, can build community. They can build the future.
"This," he paused, gesturing at the mural, "is a visual display of hope."
IF YOU GO
What: "HOPE" mural unveiling
When: Tuesday, 5 to 6:30 p.m.
Where: 13th and Nicholas Streets
Information: 402-397-7775; millworkcommons.com