VERDIGRE, Neb. – When locals look back on the March floods, they say the earth was bleeding water. Heavy rains pummeled still-frozen land, and the water had nowhere to go.
Ice chunks the size of trucks had built up behind the Spencer Dam on the Niobrara River, a tributary of the Missouri River in northeastern Nebraska. When the 92-year-old dam broke on March 14, ice and water surged downriver, flooding fields, destroying buildings and blocking roads.
Across America’s farm and ranch heartland, including in western Iowa along the Missouri River, communities experienced unprecedented spring flooding this year due to heavy rainfall and snowmelt. Rising water is not unique to the Midwest.
Close to 700 of 1,187 federally declared disasters since 1999 have involved flooding, affecting Americans everywhere. In May, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted that at least 25 states would face elevated risk for flooding, especially Nebraska, Minnesota and Iowa.
In the Midwest in particular, instances of flooding have increased, according to the National Climate Assessment. This has contributed to significantly lower soybean and corn crop yields this year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
But for people with deep ties to this land, whose livelihoods depend on living close to waterways, the choice to move away is not easy. Farmers and members of Native American tribes tend to live on land their ancestors settled hundreds of years ago.
These waterways provide life but also threats.
In Nebraska, 71% of major disaster declarations recorded since 1993 have involved flooding, but Nebraskans say the March storms were exceptional.
“WE NEED HELP”
Outside Lynch, Nebraska, population 245, flooding pushed a piece of ice as large as a dinner table into Emy Collin’s backyard. She saw logs, tires and “all kinds of strange stuff” floating up to her home.
When school let out around noon, her 14-year-old son called to say there was no way home.
“That day of the flood, he was calling us all the time making sure we were still alive because he was worried that … our house could get wiped out,” Collin said.
Collin, a member of the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska, moved her family back to the tribe’s ancestral homeland near the Ponca Creek three years ago. To Collin, living in harmony with nature means a great deal.
“The solitude, the wide open space, you can go outside and see beauty,” she said.
But it comes with risks.
“I’ve always wanted to live by a running stream or river,” she said. “And then the flood happened.”
The rising water left the family mostly cut off from other communities for 18 days. For the first two, Collin’s son was unable to make his way home, staying with a school bus driver instead. Months after the floodwaters receded, the family still faces detours of roughly 100 miles to get to nearby cities for grocery shopping or to see family.
The flood also struck Verdigre, a town 40 miles away that was founded by Czech homesteaders in the 1800s. On March 13, waters had spilled over the banks of Verdigre Creek by noon, and by 4 p.m. most of Main Street was inundated.
Country Creations, owned by long-time resident Delores Ruzicka, had a foot of water and what she calls “flood crud” – the silt and trash left behind when the water recedes.
“We ended up OK thanks to people we didn’t even know,” she said. “They carried everything out of this building so we could start over.”
One of the hardest hit properties was a 2,000-acre farm where Delores’ distant relatives have grazed cattle since the Homestead Act of 1862.
Twenty miles from Verdigre, in the unincorporated village of Pishelville, Willard Ruzicka, 72, counted his losses.
“We lost millions and now we have to build a home,” he said as he watched construction work on his new house. “We need help.”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency provided only $30,000 to build a home from scratch, he said.
Willard’s son, Anthony Ruzicka, has been staying in a camper on the property, using an outdoor shower he built from wood pallets, with a tarp as a door. For months, he has hauled away debris and put up fencing.
At first, the family doubted they would be able to continue farming. In the two hours they had to evacuate, they were able to save their best tractors, without which Anthony says they couldn’t afford to run a farm.
Walls of ice destroyed outbuildings and took out miles of fencing. Ruzicka estimated they had lost at least 1,500 hay bales and 25 buildings.
The waters have receded, but not the problems.
“That there,” Anthony Ruzicka said, pointing to a 20-foot-tall metal grain bin filled with ruined corn, “I wish that washed away. Now, I don’t know what to do with it.” Four other similar storage bins did wash away.
The Spencer Dam, built in 1927 to generate hydraulic energy, was scheduled to be shut down.
“It was never designed or even used for any kind of flood control,” said Mark Becker, of the Nebraska Public Power District, which owned and operated the structure.
“The end result will probably be, we’ll tear everything out,” Becker said, adding that the structure was not meant to be a “dam.”
Nevertheless, that’s what the community calls it.
“The dam’s never going to break again, but that river is spreading out,” Ruzicka said. “You don’t know if you’re safe. Once you see it once, you’re never sure again.”
The Ruzickas aren’t the only family that thought of relocating. Jeff Uhlir of Verdigre, who farms land that has been in his family since the 1870s, is considering it as well.
“But it’s really difficult when your great-great-grandfather came here, and you walked the same ground as your great-great-grandfather,” Uhlir said. “No matter where you go from here, you’re not home.”
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FARMS UNDER WATER
An excess of water on agricultural land, if it persists, can make it impossible to grow crops, Uhlir said. Soil erosion, along with high deposits of sand and other debris, damages land that was once productive. That translates to a lower crop yield for farmers and less income to pay for repairs.
Nebraska Farm Bureau President Steve Nelson estimates that the state lost $400 million in livestock and $450 million in crops. But it’s too early to know the long-term toll this year’s floods will have on the economy.
Following the Mississippi River flooding in 2008, communities in southeastern Iowa and west central Illinois collectively experienced a 35 percent decline in farm earnings, according to a report by the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs. Some counties in the affected areas saw permanent job losses.
In the past 50 or 60 years, the Midwest has experienced wetter conditions, and heavier precipitation events when they occur, according to Doug Kluck, the central region climate services director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“So it’s not surprising that we see more instances of flooding, especially with heavier rainfall,” he said.
This year’s flooding was “an outlier,” Kluck said.
“Are we going to see this every year? No. Are we going to see this more frequently? Perhaps.”
According to the National Climate Assessment, annual precipitation has increased in the Midwest, up to 20 percent in some locations, and the heaviest rainfall has only gotten heavier.
This trend is concerning, given how many people can be affected by flooding.
Although FEMA estimates that 13 million Americans live in a 100-year flood zone, the actual number may be much higher, according to an Environmental Research Letters study in 2018. FEMA flood maps do not take into account the risk generated by smaller streams, and the study estimates that a more accurate count is nearly 41 million.
For instance, many properties that were flooded in Nebraska in 2019 were not directly impacted by the Missouri River but by its tributaries, including Verdigre and Ponca creeks and the Niobrara River.
The Missouri River isn’t the only waterway that experienced unusual floods in 2019. The Mississippi also flooded farmland from the Midwest down to the Gulf of Mexico.
Smith Stoner, a fourth generation farmer in Holly Bluff, Mississippi, said flooding began in February and is not expected to subside until August.
He usually plants corn, cotton and soybeans on his 2,800 acres. This year, he was only able to plant cotton, and only on 800 acres. The floods, Stoner said, have “got us trapped with no way out.”
Based on his budget, the worst case scenario for 2019 is a $350,000 loss, with the best case scenario a $250,000 loss.
“We can’t survive two years of this,” he said, explaining that farmers have to pay for crop insurance, loans on equipment, land rent, labor and fuel costs regardless of whether they make a profit.
Stoner’s great-grandfather founded the farm in 1919, but Stoner is the only descendant still working family land.
“I’ve seen so many people … lose everything their families worked for for years and years,” he said. “It’s said that the third generation, they’re the ones that lose the land. I’ve made it to the fourth generation and I’m determined to … still have that land to give hopefully to the next generation. It means more than anything in the world to me.”
But challenges from one season often carry over into the next.
Tyler Rohrer, a produce farmer in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, is still recovering from last year’s floods.
“2018 was one of the wettest years on record,” Rohrer said. “And tomatoes do not like wet.”
He said the excessive water brought disease upon his tomato crop, lowering productivity. And the following year, he lost half of his strawberry crop due to rotten roots.
“Farming, as I like to explain it, is more of a lifestyle,” Rohrer said. “It’s not a let’s-get-rich-quick thing. It’s a year-in and year-out, long term-commitment and you just keep going.”
‘LIKE THE GREAT DEPRESSION’
Floods also devastate the small towns that support agriculture. Business owners struggled as visitors dwindled and locals had less to spend.
“It’s been a real financial struggle for everyone,” said Denise Wilson, who owns a bar in Niobrara, population 370, where the Niobrara and Missouri rivers meet.
“It’s almost like the Great Depression. People aren’t moving,” she said. “They aren’t going anywhere. There’s no money to spend. Farming in this area is a big part of our economics. If the farmers aren’t doing well, no one’s doing well.”
Niobrara also relies on hunters, river rafters and visitors to Niobrara State Park to boost its economy. Wilson said her bar reflects the state of the local economy.
“Since March 15, there aren’t any people in the chairs,” she said. “The business has dropped probably to at least a third, and almost a quarter of what we had any other year that we have been in operation.”
Towns by the Mississippi have seen something similar, said Stoner, the Holly Bluff farmer. The only grocery store in town recently shut down, as has a nearby tractor dealership.
“Businesses are already getting shut down just after six months of (floods),” Stoner said. “So just think about if you had a full year or another year after that … if that happens, then you would see towns dry out to nothing.”
‘THIS IS OUR HOME’
Just east of Niobrara, on the Santee Sioux Reservation, Mike Crosley lost his home and ranch to floodwaters.
By the evening of March 13, 2 feet of water stood in Crosley’s home, and most of his outbuildings were 8 feet under. Then the power went out.
“I went to higher ground at my parents’ place,” Crosley said. “They’re in their 80s and my father’s on oxygen, and we began getting the generators hooked up to keep his oxygen supply working.”
For three nights, Crosley woke up every two hours to make sure his dad’s oxygen was flowing. By the time he got back to his own home, everything was “a total loss.”
“I’m 62 years old and I had never seen that amount of water ever come down that quick,” Crosley said. “It scoured the bottom of the creek 6 to 10 feet deep. It deposited sand all over our fields on over 200 acres.”
Crosley describes his heritage as “from two worlds” – white and Native American. His Santee Sioux ancestors have been in the area since the 1860s, and as the tribe’s land manager, Crosley believes it’s his responsibility to regain as much lost land as possible for the tribe.
Meanwhile, “in the white world,” Crosley said, he’s still farming the same acres that his great-grandfathers bought when they settled. His history with the land makes him committed to staying on it.
“I’m not going to leave here,” he said. “I am going to build a house in a better location. But I would never leave here.”
Things haven’t been easy, said Crosley, who still is living with his brother. “I think today’s Day 94 – we count days of how long we’ve been homeless.”
For some, this housing insecurity lasts long after waters have receded.
Debra Grant, a member of the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska, had lived most of her life on the reservation in Macy, and spent 15 years in a three-bedroom home in “the bottom.” The bottom, named because it used to be the bottom of the Missouri River before it changed course, is fertile, grassy land with an abundance of wide-open space.
Grant did not know the area was a floodplain.
In 2011, she had to evacuate within 24 hours when the Missouri topped its banks. The farm in those lowlands took five years to recover and grow crops again. For Grant, the recovery has not ended.
She spent the next five years in a home that was not “fit to live in,” with a basement full of cat feces and mold. In December 2016, Grant, two of her children and five of her grandchildren moved into a new house. In March, her home flooded again.
“I said I think the flood followed me up here,” Grant said.
Venetia Wolfe, deputy director of the Omaha Tribal Housing Authority, said the flooding has affected all tribe members.
‘What’s going to happen if the flood waters don’t stop, where are we going to go, what we’re going to do?’” Wolfe said. “We have no place to go. This is our home.”
News21 reporters Allie Barton and Priscilla Malavet contributed to this report.
Allie Barton, Molly Duerig and Anya Magnuson are Hearst Foundation Fellows. Priscilla Malavet is a Knight Foundation Fellow.
About this project:
This report is part of State of Emergency, a project produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 initiative, a national investigative reporting project by top college journalism students and recent graduates from across the country and headquartered at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. Recent University of Iowa School of Journalism and Mass Communication graduate Becca Scadden was part of News21 this year.