NIOBRARA, Neb. — Surrounded by thick slabs of ice stacked up to 10 feet high, Nathan Sucha stretched a measuring tape Sunday over a gaping hole in the concrete-block wall of the Country Cafe.
He delivered perhaps the only good news his mother, Laura, had heard since raging floodwaters, mixed with ice cakes as big as king-size beds, bulldozed through her restaurant on Thursday.
“Mom, I think we can fix it,” he said.
Laura Sucha wasn’t yet ready to buy it. She was still in shock over the ice-filled wall of water that rampaged through the west end of this town after the Thursday morning collapse of the Spencer Dam, 35 miles upstream on the Niobrara River.
The devastation in this recreation-based community of 370 was a testament to the pummeling power of Mother Nature when huge chunks of winter ice are propelled by an estimated 11-foot wall of water. In that way, it was a different scene than many others across flood-ravaged Nebraska.
“It just looked like the end of the world coming,” said Mayor Jody Stark, who saw the water coming on Thursday.
There wasn’t anything Sucha or her family could have done — they were trapped by floodwaters where they live in Verdigre, Nebraska, and unable to get to Niobrara.
A huge backhoe, driven by Sucha’s other son, Nolan, was needed to clear a path through the ice blocks so they could reach the restaurant.
“It’s total devastation. The ice just destroyed everything,” Sucha said as she waded in rubber boots through the mud and water left behind in a popular eatery she’s owned since 2015.
The chunks of ice, some up to 2 feet thick, acted like a roiling plow at Niobrara, where the Niobrara River dumps into the Missouri. The ice battered down walls and crumpled metal Quonset huts like cellophane bags. The town golf course looked like an Arctic ice field, with jumbled blocks of ice intermixed with wooden debris of buildings, tires and barrels, and cedar trees torn away from banks of the river.
The so-called Mormon Bridge just west of town was blown away, tearing out the tourist-based town’s access to nearby Niobrara State Park and a cabin development along the Missouri called Lazy River Acres.
“The busy season starts in two weeks,” said Sucha, referring to waves of fishermen and turkey hunters. “And I’m not going to be open.”