From the banks of the Platte River, the Otoe Indians gave the wide, meandering waterway a name: Nebrathka. Roughly translated: flat water.
Over the weekend, for one of the few times in modernity, the name Nebraska seemed both fitting and far from adequate. Yes, this water is flat. But it also is fierce and unforgiving.
The flood of 2019 isn’t just historic. It’s almost apocalyptic.
» The Spencer Dam in Boyd County — a dam that had controlled flows for 91 years — crumbles under the surge of the Niobrara River. Sweeping away outbuildings, homes and presumably the life of a man who lived downstream.
» Ice chunks — “big enough to hold a square dance on,” tweeted Jared Jaixen, whose field near Loup City was full of them — wash up by the hundreds, crush restaurant walls and dot the landscape like the concrete remains of buildings in war-torn cities.
» Fremont firefighters board two airboats to help a stranded family living near the Elkhorn River between Fremont and Arlington. Winds whipping at 60 mph, the boats capsize, throwing the firefighters into the frigid, rushing waters. The men hang on for an hour — until officials can send pilots in Black Hawk helicopters to rescue the rescue workers. They do, then turn to the family. But the family, not wanting to leave their pets behind, refuses to board the choppers. Even then, Nebraskans don’t abandon their neighbors. The next day, Nebraska Game and Parks officials return and rescue the family.
» A farmer — church elder, husband, father of three — powers his tractor to help a stranded motorist near Columbus. A bridge collapses. The driver lives. A hero dies.
» Staples of Nebraska, underwater. Farm fields, flooded. Homesteads and barns and outbuildings, surrounded and soaked. Semitrailer trucks, submerged. Livestock trapped in their pastures, water closing in. Lake houses, where no one knows where the lake ends and the house begins.
» Entire cities and towns — Norfolk and Fremont and Arlington and Peru and Valley and, yes, Waterloo — become virtual islands as main arterials are cut off. And yet they become beacons of resilience and resourcefulness as residents band together.
» Offutt Air Force Base, inundated. Air Force personnel spend the weekend sandbagging — to no avail. In the end, the flood grounds crews, at least for the time being, from their Bellevue launchpad.
» Nebraska’s governor surveys the damage from a helicopter — sees bridges washed out, dikes pierced, dams overcome. One-third of Nebraska is directly impacted by the flood, he declares. So far.
All of this is the product of record snowfall and a bomb cyclone, an epic drop in air pressure that triggers massive weather events. Another word for it: historic. Still another: Apocalyptic.
And so as I sit on the banks of the ironically dry Cunningham Lake — the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers drained it to try to eradicate another of Mother Nature’s insidious killers, the zebra mussel — I’m left to think about the power and wonder and wickedness of water.
Water overflows and undermines. Water rises and ruins and ravages. At the same time, water cleanses, rejuvenates and restores. Water baptizes. Water kills.
The toll so far: Three people dead in eastern Nebraska and western Iowa. Two others missing and presumed dead.
My friends in the Panhandle, as self-effacing as they are steel-willed, like to joke about the endless, breathtaking horizons in their slice of the state. “It’s not the end of the world,” they say, “but you can see it from here.”
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For those of us across the rest of Nebraska, this past week isn’t the end of the world. But we got a glimpse.
One day, this water will recede. And thousands of Nebraskans will restart and rebuild with the work ethic that quietly courses through us.
Water again will become what we covet. And, yes, what we curse.