In the US Grain Belt: “I’m Looking at Climate Change”

March 23, 2019


Spring flooding happens nearly every year in the upper Midwest, but current flooding has far surpassed previous all-time records on Nebraska’s major waterways. Climate change means springtime temperatures are arriving earlierwith more intense early-season rains, worsening the risk of damaging floods. In one location, the Missouri River broke its previous record by nearly four feet.

The most spectacular flooding resulted from the failure of the 90-year-old Spencer Dam on the Niobrara River in north-central Nebraska when it unleashed an 11-foot wall of water on Thursday. Before the flood gauge on the river failed, “it looked like something incredible was happening that we couldn’t believe,” Jason Lambrecht, a Nebraska-based hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey told the Lincoln Journal-Star. “And suddenly, everything went dark.”

The flash flood destroyed roads, homes, and bridges before emptying into the Missouri River and joining with meltwater from South Dakota and Iowa. On Saturday, two levees breached on the Platte River, cutting off the town of Fremont, Nebraska — the state’s sixth-largest city. A volunteer airlift has been supplying the city over the weekend and performing rescues.

As of Monday, water levels have crested in most of the state, though major flooding will continue for several days. Offutt Air Force base near Omaha — the home of U.S. Strategic Command — remains inundated, a poignant sign of climate change as a national security risk. There are dozens of road closures across the area.

Eastern Nebraska is just the worst-hit region: Major flooding is currently underway in parts of seven states in the upper Midwest, with near-record flooding expected to spread northward into Minnesota and North Dakota in the coming weeks. In Minnesota, officials expect a greater than 95 percent chance of major flooding, possibly rivaling all-time records.

New York Times:

VERDIGRE, Neb. — Ice chunks the size of small cars ripped through barns and farmhouses. Baby calves were swept into freezing floodwaters, washing up dead along the banks of swollen rivers. Farm fields were now lakes.

The record floods that have pummeled the Midwest are inflicting a devastating toll on farmers and ranchers at a moment when they can least afford it, raising fears that this natural disaster will become a breaking point for farms weighed down by falling incomes, rising bankruptcies and the fallout from President Trump’s trade policies.

“When you’re losing money to start with, how do you take on extra losses?” asked Clint Pischel, 23, of Niobrara, Neb., whose lowland fields were flooded by the ice-filled Niobrara River after a dam failed. He spent Monday gathering 30 dead baby calves from his family’s ranch in this northern region of the state, finding their bodies under huge chunks of ice.

“There’s no harder business to be in,” Mr. Pischel added. “But with death and everything else, you’ve got to answer to bankers. It’s not our choice.”

Farms filing for Chapter 12 bankruptcy protection rose by 19 percent last year across the Midwest, the highest level in a decade, according to data compiled by the American Farm Bureau. Now, many of those farmers have lost their livestock and livelihoods.

The rail lines and roads that carry their crops to market were washed away by the rain-gorged rivers that drowned small towns, forced thousands of evacuations and killed at least three people. Some farmers say they have been cut off from their animals behind walls of water, while others cannot get to town for food and supplies for their livestock.

The Ruzickas were still tallying the losses to their cattle herd. They scrambled to move cows to neighboring farms before the dam burst last week, but at least 15 newborn calves perished, and they believe the death toll is much higher.

“We didn’t know what to do with them. We never, ever expected anything like this,” Mr. Ruzicka said Monday. “We just ran out of time. It was either sacrifice them or sacrifice ourselves.”

Crisis has grown all too familiar for some people in the region. In Knox County, Neb., Hannah Sucha, 25, helped coordinate efforts to deliver emergency supplies including minerals, antibiotics and salt blocks to farmers hurt by the floods. Just two years ago, Ms. Sucha said, farmers and ranchers in the area were busy donating bales of their hay to ranches in Kansas and Oklahoma devastated by wildfires.

“It’s going to affect them for years,” Ms. Sucha said. “You’re not going to be able to sleep at night because you’ve got so much loss.”

New York Times:

“I’m looking at global warming — I don’t need to see the graphs,” said Hamburg’s mayor, Cathy Crain, referring to the role of climate change in increasing the frequency of extreme weather events. After two record-setting floods in a single decade, Ms. Crain said, “I’m living it and everybody else here is living it.”

The flood spoiled a time of cautious optimism in Hamburg, which like many rural Midwestern towns now has about half the population it once did. Next week, Dr. Wells, the school superintendent, was scheduled to ask state officials for permission to reopen the town’s high school, a move seen as crucial to keeping young families in town. Before the water hit, Ms. Crain said, people were talking about building a new subdivision and finding new residents.

But as floodwaters receded in other places, Hamburg remained largely submerged on Wednesday. On the dry side of town, residents visited the school to pick up hot meals and donated clothes that filled the gym. Ms. Crain, who was operating from a makeshift City Hall in the school’s home economics classroom, spoke hopefully about getting businesses back open, even as she coordinated more immediate concerns — like hot showers and restoring gas service.



8 Responses to “In the US Grain Belt: “I’m Looking at Climate Change””

  1. Sir Charles Says:

    Will we see some ‘climate justice’ at the end?

  2. xraymike79 Says:

    This is how it ends… financial ruin from wave after wave of destruction caused by extreme weather events once categorized as only happening every 1,000 years or longer. Say goodbye to the stability of the Holocene! Retreat from low-lying coastal areas and overgrown forests because your insurance will soon be unaffordable:

  3. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    Meanwhile, the US continues to subsidize flood insurance, a program that’s already well in the red.

  4. John Says:

    Reblogged this on jpratt27 and commented:
    Time to join the ExtinctionRebellion

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