UNITED STATES — March 20, 2019 — Nebraska, Iowa, and Wisconsin have all declared states of emergency as record flooding devastates rural communities. Caused by rapid snow melt and late winter rains following last week’s bomb cyclone blizzard, the Midwest floods have killed four people and unknown numbers of livestock, causing more than a billion dollars in farming and infrastructure losses, according to Reuters and other sources.
The trouble began last week when a strong blizzard known as a “bomb cyclone” hit the Midwest and Great Plains region. This hurricane-like storm pummeled the area with high winds and heavy snow, followed by a sudden warm-up and heavy rain. Brian Barjenbruch, science and operations officer for the Weather Service in Omaha, Nebraska explains how this perfect storm of conditions led to historic flooding: “The ground was completely frozen. It’s almost like all of this rain was falling, melting snow, and every last drop had to run off,” he said, as reported by the Washington Post.
All that rain and snowmelt runoff swelled the Missouri River and the thick river ice started to break apart. The surging ice-filled water broke levees and dams up and down the river, and then went on to destroy roads, bridges, and buildings as massive ice chucks slammed into structures. The worst of the flooding and damage is concentrated in the farming communities in Iowa and Nebraska along the Missouri River, which was expected to crest at 47.5 feet, breaking its 2011 record by more than a foot, according to Reuters.
Even after the water recedes, the struggle is just beginning for farmers who, in addition to facing stored crop, livestock, and equipment losses, will have to restore not only buildings, but also clean the land of debris and toxic chemicals in time for spring planting. “The water is chock-full of stuff. This is a toxic brew that is going down the river — the water took out gas stations and farm shops and fuel barrels,” said John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union, as reported by The Washington Post. Hansen went on to explain that overly saturated fields also bring rot, mold, and other challenges that will likely plague farmers throughout the season.
According to Reuters, half of Iowa’s counties are in a state of emergency, and Nebraska officials estimate their state’s damages at $553 million in public infrastructure and $89 million in privately owned assets. One third of Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha is under water, and homes and businesses are flooded in many small towns like Hamburg, Iowa and Niobrara, Nebraska. Reuters reported that with more rain in the forecast and more snow to melt in the Dakotas, the National Weather Service predicts that the Midwest floods will last into next week and begin to threaten areas to the south along the Mississippi River as the flood waters move downstream.