BROWNVILLE, Neb., (Reuters) – Severe flooding caused by rainfall and melting snow devastated farms and towns in Nebraska and Iowa on Tuesday, leaving at least four people dead and causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damage, with waters yet to crest in parts of the region for several days.
The floods inundated stretches of the two farm states along the Missouri River, the longest in waterway in North America. Nearly half of Iowa’s counties have been declared disaster areas.
The floods followed a powerful winter hurricane that slammed into the U.S. Farm Belt last week, killing untold numbers of livestock, destroying grains and soybeans in storage, and cutting off access to farms due to road and rail damage.
“It’s really too early to know for sure how bad this is going to get. But one thing we do know: It’s catastrophic for farmers,” said Matt Perdue, government relations director for the National Farmers Union trade group.
Rescuers could be seen in boats pulling pets from flooded homes. Some roadways crumbled to rubble, while sections of others were submerged. In Hamburg, Iowa, floodwaters covered buildings.
Nebraska officials estimate more than $1 billion in flood damage for the state’s agricultural sector so far, according to Craig Head, vice president of issue management at the Nebraska Farm Bureau. But Head said the number is expected to grow as floodwaters recede.
“We’re hoping it’s only $1 billion, but that’s only a hope,” Perdue said.
Nebraska officials estimate the floods have caused an estimated $553 million in damage to public infrastructure and other assets, as well as $89 million in privately owned assets, according to the state’s Emergency Management Agency on Tuesday.
The water also covered about a third of Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, Nebraska, home to the U.S. Strategic Command, whose responsibilities include defending against and responding to nuclear attacks.
In Niobrara, Nebraska, south of the Missouri River near the border with South Dakota, Mayor Jody Stark said flooding that began on Thursday had devastated his community of 350 people, with businesses being the hardest hit.
“Our road system is shot pretty much in every direction coming into town,” Stark said.
“It’s one day at a time. We will do what we can to get back on our feet,” Stark said. “It’s just so heartbreaking. It’s going to be tough, but hopefully we can all get through it.”
Southwest Iowa Renewable Energy, which runs a 120 million-gallon-a-year (450-million-liter a year) ethanol production plant in Council Bluffs on the Iowa-Nebraska border, had to cut production because some corn farmers who supply the plant have determined some of their crops are unusable, said company Chief Executive Mike Jerke.
About 74 Nebraska cities had declared states of emergency by Monday evening, according to the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency. More than 600 residents were evacuated and taken to American Red Cross-operated shelters.
Vice President Mike Pence was scheduled to survey the damage with Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts and Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds.
“Heading to Nebraska today to survey the devastating flood damage. To the people of Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota, Kansas & all regions impacted: we are with you,!” Pence said in a post on Twitter early Tuesday.
The floodwaters were the result of snowmelt following heavy rains last week and warm weather, said Bob Oravec, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Weather Prediction Center.
The weather service’s website shows some locales along the Missouri River in Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri are expected to continue to see waters rise for several more days.
The four reported deaths included one person in Iowa who was rescued from floodwaters but later succumbed to injuries, the Fremont County Sheriff’s Office said in a news release.
Roads leading to the Nebraska Public Power District’s Cooper nuclear plant near Brownville were engulfed by floodwaters from the Missouri, but the facility was still operating safely at full power on Tuesday morning.
The plant operator was flying staff members and supplies to the plant with helicopters, said power district spokesman Mark Becker.