The Great Flood of 2011
The roar of the Missouri flowing through the 14 floodgates spanning the shared Nebraska and South Dakota border was a hungry lion waiting to pounce. Soon the nation’s longest river would attack Nebraska with one of the worst floods in its history.
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Platte River Flood
EASTERN NEBRASKA wasn't the only part of the state to suffer from epic floods in 2011. From March through October, the North and South Platte rivers in Western Nebraska resisted the trite adage that its typically placid flows are merely an inch deep.
Reservoirs upstream in Wyoming were holding 40 percent more water than normal when spring snow melt and rain combined and converged on the Platte River Valley. To make room for the coming surge, officials from Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District had no choice but to open the floodgates, releasing water from Lake McConaughy, Nebraska's largest lake, driving people and their posessions to higher ground.
When the water began rising at Scottsbluff, Gering, and Terrytown, it rose 3 feet in just five days. And local residents weren't the only ones
howling. More than 180 animals at the Riverside Discovery Center, formerly the Riverside Zoo, sensed the rising tide. Zoo staff and volunteers worked hard to relocate them all before the flood could sweep them toward North Platte, or release them into local neighborhoods. Lions, and chimps, and bison – Oh my!
All of the zoo's animals survived the flooding, but closure of the facility for six weeks during what is usually its busiest time of year hurt to the tune of more than $30,000 in lost admission charges, not to mention the cancellation of Riverside's popular summer camps.
"But the community really came together to support us after the flood," said Anne James, the center's executive director. Supporters donated building materials, equipment and labor. Backhoes were loaned to the zoo at no cost, as were refrigeration units and other needed supplies. "One family even took all of the animals from our petting zoo home, took great care of them, and fed them for six weeks – and didn't charge us anything," James said. Several enclosures were safe from the tide, but some large animals were moved to zoo buildings on higher ground, while caring zoo staff squirreled the smaller critters away to their own homes until waters receded.
Not letting the flood damage dampen their hopes for the future, the Riverside Discovery Center recently broke ground on a new 17,000-square-foot combination natural history museum, zoo, event center and children's museum.
Just downstream from the zoo, water lapped mere inches away from people on their way to work and school as the Platte reached toward the bottom of the Highway 71 bridge. When viewed from atop Scotts Bluff National Monument, the Platte looked as if it was a mile wide. How long would the road remain dry? Would commuters be able to make it to work tomorrow? Anyone glancing east of the bridge could see water pooling, and it turned Terry's Lake into an inland sea. And in Terrytown, water crept steadily toward a trailer court near the intersection of Terry Boulevard and Stable Club Drive.
Meetings were held at Terrytown's Carpenter Center, and residents of the lowlying area were advised to begin thinking about moving their belongings to higher ground and figuring out where they were going to live. Town officials already had the Red Cross ready to spring into action, and the Nebraska Public Power District was ready to switch off the power in the event that the trailer court community was inundated.
"Our dike held the water back," said Terrytown Mayor Ken Greenwalt. In what was either a fluke of nature, or the result of the desperate prayers of Terrytown residents, unbelievably, the floodwaters flowed under the trailer court, and into Terry's Lake.
"Yeah, it was miracle," Greenwalt said. "But we were ready. Terrytown, Scottsbluff, and Gering – we were all ready for it. And now we're better prepared for when, not if, it happens again."
Julie Morrison was fearful for her Terrytown neighbors. "As we watched the water rise every day, I was afraid they were going to get washed away," Morrison said. "If the levy would have broke, they would have had no chance." Morrison's home is on higher ground than those in that Terrytown trailer court, but her business, Julie's Antiques in Gering, still suffered flood damage. The economic variety.
"We're an agricultural community, and when farmers get nervous about their fields being flooded, they aren't buying antiques, or much of anything else either," Morrison said. "And all of the talk of the streets being closed down between Scottsbluff and Gering, and that the 21st Street bridge was going to fail, had tourists nervous, too."
The streets stayed open and the bridge held up, but Morrison's busiest time of year was water under the bridge for 2011. She's optimistic that 2012 will be better. "But there's still a lot of snow left up in the mountains," Morrison said.
As the deluge continued to scour downstream, it became a mass of water, sand, trash, grass and mud. In Lincoln County, approximately 10,000 acres of pastures, grassland and hay fields were flooded, and production for most of that ground was lost for the year. Bruce Solko, director for the Farm Service Agency's Lincoln County office in North Platte says most farmers avoided disaster, "Luckily, this was moving water,” he said. “Most of the flooded pasture didn't end up silted in, and the grass should be normal this year. As long as we don't experience any more flooding."
Workers brought in from Omaha filled sandbags near the North Platte Airport. More than 26,000 sandbags into their own mission, Michael Ramirez, a contractor with Navarro Enterprise Construction Inc., showed his pride in what he and the rest of the crew were doing, "All of us are from Omaha, but we're helping to save North Platte."