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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North Platte became the front line in a battle that pitted man against nature. The thump-thump-thump of rotor blades from three Blackhawk helicopters could be heard across North Platte as the green machines hovered ominously over the city as National Guard troops outflanked the Platte's invasion through a breeched levee near a railroad bridge. The choppers relentlessly bombarded the river with 1-ton sandbags every 5 minutes, and after nearly 5 million pounds of these dirty bombs had been dropped, the 6-day war was finally won.
Channels were dug to drain water surrounding several airport buildings, and water was running across Highway 30. A natural gas station near the Lincoln Country Historical Museum was sandbagged to protect the town's supply. At Nebraskaland Days, following the kids sandcastle building contest, volunteers used the sand to fill 300 sandbags. The Buffalo Bill Ranch State Park lost much of its riverbank and was closed most of the summer. Not far away, the Platte flowed freely across North Platte's beloved Cody Park.
And on 40 green acres across the river from Cody Park, the floodwaters raged 15 inches deep for a month. And Dr. Gary Conell, a family practitioner in North Platte, needed a four-wheel-drive truck to get back and forth from home to work. The York-area native had things moved to higher ground before high water reached his belongings, but when the Platte reached his large Quonset, "I just opened the doors and let it go," Conell said. "Yes, the Platte River was flowing through that building."
"I've never seen anything like it before," Conell said. "But the river is really bottlenecked here at North Platte, and since the city built the dike, now more water is diverted onto my property. But, when you live on the river, well, some days you have a risk."
Conell thinks better planning could alleviate the damage to property owners along both the Missouri and the Platte.
"When there's 200 percent of normal snow upstream, somebody should think that sooner or later, that water is going to start flowing. And, the authorities, they're damned if they do, and damned if they don't. But you'd think we'd be sophisticated enough to open those dams and start releases earlier to avoid this. I'm sure we pay these people enough to manage the river better. But I'm sure it's more difficult than most people think."
Other than having to build up his driveway, replace his yard, and a little clean-up in the Quonset, the only other flood-related inconvenience Conell has endured is the current battle against the moss and cattails now growing in his yard. "That's no major problem," Conell said. "But one of my neighbors, he said 'I'm done,' and he left."
That neighbor across the river was Don Nicholson, and after 22 years on the river, he and his wife, Pauline, had seen many floods. And even though the home they were living in was a quarter-mile from the river's usual channel, they ended up
with a crawlspace full, and 12 inches of water inside their home. The carpet and walls in their garage and shop were destroyed, and so was their well and septic system. "We didn't lose much," Nicholson said. "But we just got tired of having to move everything every so often. So, we cut our losses and bought a small house here in North Platte.
"I miss living out there, but I don't miss wondering, how high is it gonna get this year?"
(This story first appeared in the May/June 2012 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine.)