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Officials watch for flooding in eastern Nebraska as river ice melts
  • Updated

Observers in eastern Nebraska will be keeping a close eye on area rivers for signs of flooding as a welcome warming trend begins to melt ice and snow.

“We’re just waiting to see how the snow will melt over the next couple of days,” said hydrologist David Pearson of the National Weather Service office in Valley. “We’ll be watching closely.”

Highs on both Monday and Tuesday were expected to be in the mid-40s before dropping back into the upper 30s on Thursday, according to Hallie Bova, a Valley-based weather service meteorologist. The first week of March, Bova said, should see a return to average highs in the mid-40s, warm enough to accelerate the melting of snow and ice.

“How warm it gets kind of depends on how much snow melts,” Bova said. “It does look like we’ll have some more above-normal (temperature) days in early March.”

Pearson said observers will focus on the Platte River near Fremont, where ice jams already have occurred. An ongoing ice jam at Fremont is at the U.S. Highway 77 bridge and continues upstream for 2 to 3 miles, the Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District reported.

Other locations to watch include the Loup River near Columbus and the Elkhorn River, Pearson said. Current flood advisory details are available at

The ice on the Platte River near Valley measured 15 inches thick on Friday, said Jennifer Stauss Story, a spokeswoman for the Papio-Missouri River NRD. That could signify an increased potential for ice jams, she said.

“We’re a little concerned about the next couple of days,” Pearson said. “If it gets warm enough, that could mean a high (amount) of melt.”

The weather service and other agencies will continue to monitor the river ice conditions and forecasts. Pearson said the hope is always for a slow melt with no — or very little — rain.

“There are no typical years (for ice melting),” Pearson said. “I’ve seen two feet of ice and nothing happened. We had a slow melt. Some years, there’s been very little ice and then flooding.”

Photos: Record-breaking cold temperatures hit Nebraska

Photos: Record-breaking cold temperatures hit Nebraska

Comparing death tolls from wars, pandemics is fraught

Counting the dead is one of the first, somber steps in reckoning with an event of enormous tragic scope, be it war, a natural disaster or a pandemic.

This dark but necessary arithmetic has become all too routine during the COVID-19 outbreak.

The total U.S death toll passed half a million souls on Monday, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Each death is unique, a devastating loss that ripples through a family, a network, a community. But in the aggregate, the national death toll can feel abstract, and its repetition in the news can become numbing. Journalists, commentators and public officials are left searching for new ways to convey the deadliness of this pathogen, and the significance of its mounting fatality rate.

Many have turned to history, citing Pearl Harbor (2,403 killed) or the 9/11 attacks (at least 2,977 killed) as a way of providing perspective when the number of daily COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. reached those levels. (The level has recently dropped from about 3,000 Americans to 2,000 Americans dying from COVID-19 on average each day.)

Jan. 21, 2021, offered another opportunity for historical comparison: That was the day when the COVID-19 death toll in the U.S. reached — and then exceeded — the 405,399 Americans who died in World War II.

For many, attempting to compare the two death tolls — or even take note of their brief conjunction — is misguided or offensive. It is certainly a morally fraught exercise. The true emotional and social impact of both events can never be completely quantified.

This raises the question: Are we as a society too quick to reach for these historical comparisons? Should a politically driven world war and a biologically driven pandemic, more than seven decades apart, be put side by side at all?

“This is comparing apples to oranges,” wrote NPR listener Kris Petron in December in response to a story that made use of that comparison. “It is extremely disrespectful to our nation’s veterans, who write a blank check with their lives, to defend our Constitution.”

This type of response, over time, has persuaded medical historian Howard Markel to not draw parallels between death tolls from war and a pandemic.

“I try not to make comparisons to an event or group that I know contains within it a great deal of sentiment, feeling and pain,” said Markel, a professor at the University of Michigan and author of “When Germs Travel: Six Major Epidemics That Have Invaded America and the Fears They Have Unleashed.”

The notion that combat deaths carry a unique meaning or value is deeply rooted in human culture. Societies tend to valorize those who died for a cause on a battlefield.

But in this pandemic it’s the frail elderly — many of them living in nursing homes and assisted living facilities — who have died in vast numbers.

“To the watching world, that’s not the same as the death of a young soldier in their 20s, let’s say, on the front lines in a war,” said Yale historian Frank Snowden, author of “Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present.“

“But I don’t think we have a right to weigh up lives and say which is more important,” Snowden added.

Unlike COVID-19, the global influenza pandemic of 1918-19 killed many people in their 20s and 30s — yet, as Snowden noted, there wasn’t much collective mourning for those young adults, despite dying in the prime of life.

“People were so used to mortality because of the (first world) war that even the horrible tallies that were coming with the ‘Spanish’ influenza had lost their capacity to horrify the way that one might expect,” he said.

The effort to compare the death toll of the pandemic with that of a war strikes historian Samuel Biagetti as an especially “modern” exercise.

“Through the vast majority of human history, people have understood warfare and disease to go hand in hand and to be inextricably linked,” said Biagetti, who is the creator and host of the podcast “Historiansplaining.”

The flu pandemic 100 years ago was fueled by the conditions of World War I and ultimately killed more people than the war, with an estimated 50 million flu deaths worldwide and upward of 700,000 flu deaths in the U.S.

Biagetti pointed out that World War II was the first conflict in American history in which combat killed more fighters than disease, a pattern that has continued since and reflects medical advances such as vaccines and antibiotics.

The carnage of war doesn’t end just because peace is declared. The spillover effects of war continue long after formal hostilities end, and include disability and disfigurement, mental trauma, addiction, homelessness and suicide.

One example is the ongoing suicide crisis among U.S. veterans. From 2005 to 2017, 78,875 veterans died by suicide — more than the number of soldiers killed in Vietnam, which was 58,220.

For all these reasons, Biagetti said he worries about comparing the current pandemic to any war, even if just for the purpose of counting the dead: “You can’t just try to sum up in a simple statistic how big is this disaster versus that disaster, as if they can even be summed up in a simple number at all.”

And yet the language of warfare permeates so much of the national discourse about the pandemic.

Nurses work on the “front lines.” Coronavirus is described as an invisible “enemy.” The country is “battling” the virus. In his inaugural address, President Joe Biden said the pandemic has “taken as many lives in one year as America lost in all of World War II.”

Some Americans whose relatives have died of COVID-19 embrace the rhetoric of war and believe that comparing the pandemic to past wars is imperative.

“The scale of this is that of a war, it’s just a different type of war and it’s not one that we’re necessarily taught in our history books,” said Kristen Urquiza, who co-founded the advocacy group Marked By COVID after her father died from the disease last summer.

Urquiza said the country struggled collectively to respond to the coronavirus because Americans have little understanding about what it takes to overcome a pandemic.

“In a way, it’s sort of more dangerous (than war) because we are culturally unprepared for it.”

There are also veterans who feel the war analogies are appropriate, and even helpful. Dr. Cleavon Gilman, an emergency physician in Yuma, Arizona, has treated COVID-19 patients from the early days of the outbreak and readily compares the pandemic to a war.

“It’s very hard to communicate the severity of this pandemic if you’re not in a hospital, where this war is being waged,” said Gilman, who served as a Marine combat medic in Iraq in 2004.

World War II was the deadliest war in world history, but not in American history: That distinction belongs to the Civil War. The death toll has traditionally been estimated to be about 618,000, but new research indicates 750,000 may be more accurate.

But World War II looms large in America’s cultural memory as a “good war,” one that united the country against a clear-cut enemy, said Catherine Mas, a professor at Florida International University who studies the history of medicine, race and religion.

In retrospect, the American response to World War II stands in sharp contrast to the current political divisions over the coronavirus.

Despite the differences, Mas said the comparisons can still be powerful tools as the country tries to reckon with a crisis that has taken place out of sight for many Americans. People are dying in hospitals without family members at the bedside, and only health care workers are there to bear witness.

“The reason we want to compare COVID-19 deaths to something like World War II is not just because the numbers are there, but to acknowledge this is a significant rupture in society,” she said.

“This mass death is going to create trauma: How are we going to deal with that? How have we dealt with that in the past? I think it’s part of our human condition to try to search for some reference points.”

Kaiser Health News is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente. This story was produced in partnership with NPR and KHN.

Nebraska sees big drop in COVID cases, surge in vaccinations
  • Updated

LINCOLN — Nebraska saw a big drop in COVID-19 cases last week, while marking its best week ever for getting vaccine into arms, according to a World-Herald accounting of national figures.

The state had 1,724 new coronavirus cases for the week ending Saturday, down from 3,606 the previous week.

That 52% decline was the fourth-steepest drop in the country.

Meanwhile, the state ramped up vaccinations, administering 87,000 shots during the week ending Sunday. That’s a 59% increase over the previous week and the 10th-best improvement of any state in the nation.

Cases in Nebraska and across the U.S. have been trending downward for weeks. Cases in the state are now the lowest since Aug. 22, while national numbers are at their lowest levels since October. Only five states saw increasing cases last week.

Gov. Pete Ricketts, at a press briefing Monday morning, said that Nebraskans still need to take precautions, like avoiding crowded places and wearing masks when you can’t. But, he said, he was impressed by how smoothly a mass vaccination effort went on Saturday at Creighton University. Nearly 4,800 people were vaccinated.

“Everything went wonderfully well,” the governor said, thanking the faculty, staff and students who volunteered to help.

Ricketts again defended his administration’s decision to prioritize shots, during the state’s current vaccination stage, for people 65 and older over those with preexisting medical conditions.

The state’s data, he said, shows that age is the single biggest factor in serious or fatal cases of COVID-19, adding that many people 65 and older have preexisting health conditions.

Ricketts said that he understands the frustration of those with comorbidities, but that “we’re doing this based on risk.”

He said he will have “more information down the road” on that issue.

Nebraska now ranks 24th in total shots administered per capita, improving from 33rd the previous week. It continues to rank particularly well in the rate of those who have received both of their shots (20th) and in rate of shot distribution (13th).

Where the state doesn’t rank so well is in the percentage of distributed shots that had been administered. That figure was 77% last week, which ranked only 45th among the states.

Ricketts said Monday that Nebraska has to do a better job on data reporting and that the state has been talking with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about how it is reporting that information to make sure it’s accurate.

“A lot of what you’re seeing is data reporting issues,” he said.

The governor added that last week’s winter storms did delay some vaccine deliveries in areas outside of Omaha and Lincoln, but those deliveries were expected to be caught up by the end of the day Monday.

Dr. Gary Anthone, the state’s chief medical official, said that a third vaccine, produced by Johnson & Johnson, could be arriving in Nebraska by late next week if federal approval is granted. He estimated that it might provide another 5,000 to 10,000 doses a week.

Our best Omaha staff photos of February 2021

Our best Omaha staff photos of February 2021

DOD inspector general to probe selection of Space Command headquarters
  • Updated

The complaint from Nebraska and Colorado that politics tainted the selection of Huntsville, Alabama, as the preferred site for the U.S. Space Command’s permanent headquarters is about to get a hearing in Washington.

The Department of Defense inspector general announced Friday that it will review the process Air Force officials used to pick Huntsville’s Redstone Army Airfield over Offutt Air Force Base, Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs and three other sites.

The selection of the Huntsville site was announced Jan. 13, just one week before the end of the Trump administration.

“We still believe Offutt AFB is the best place for USSPACECOM HQ and that the data will ultimately confirm that,” David G. Brown, president and CEO of the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce and a member of the Offutt support committee, said in a statement. “We are pleased that DoD IG and other entities are taking a second look at the selection process and results.”

The Space Command became a fully independent joint command in 2019 after 17 years under the umbrella of the Offutt-based U.S. Strategic Command, and it is temporarily headquartered in Colorado Springs until a permanent site is chosen. It was also based there during its previous incarnation as an independent command, from 1985 to 2002.

The other three finalists were Port San Antonio in Texas, Patrick Air Force Base in Florida and Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico.

A memorandum to acting Air Force Secretary John Roth — posted to the inspector general’s website — said the evaluation would begin this month and look at whether the Air Force’s selection process complied with DOD and Air Force policies.

The memo said the inspector general will also study whether the Air Force used “objective and relevant” scoring factors to rank the six locations and whether costs and other scoring factors had been accurately calculated.

Each of the six finalists was scored on a 100-point scale that rated them on factors related to compatibility with the Space Command’s mission, base capacity, costs to the DOD and community support.

Each was allowed to make a one-hour presentation to the site selection committee over video teleconference. Each also received a site visit.

Huntsville bills itself as the “Rocket City” and is home to several Army missile commands and NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

Offutt’s team touted the area’s low cost of living, livability, quality of schools and strong support for the military in its bid, which also included $107 million in financial and infrastructure incentives. It also offered a new university alliance headquartered at the University of Nebraska to provide research and academic support.

Colorado Springs offered its own academic alliance and a reported $130 million worth of incentives. Backers also boasted of the area’s decades-long association with Air Force space missions.

Colorado political and business leaders have been especially vocal in their criticism of the Air Force’s decision. They have accused then-President Donald Trump of overturning an Air Force recommendation in support of Colorado Springs as a political favor to Alabama politicians who supported his bid to overturn President Joe Biden’s victory in the November election.

The inspector general’s memo didn’t say how long the investigation is expected to take. Brown said in his statement that he is looking to an early decision.

“The sooner we can get this resolved, the better for our nation and the important space warfighting mission,” he said.

This report includes material from the Associated Press.


Photos: Offutt Air Force Base through the years

Photos: Offutt Air Force Base through the years