Editors' Notebook

Heartbreak and Healing in the Heartland

Elaine Shein
By  Elaine Shein , Associate Managing Editor
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A motorboat sits ready to reach a hog building surrounded by Missouri River flood waters east of Herman, Nebraska. The hog building was not flooded, as it was built up higher, but the lane leading to the building was underwater. (DTN photo by Russ Quinn)

Social media, as well as mainstream media, in the Midwest has been sharing photos and videos of what has been happening during these last stubborn days of winter and the beginning of spring.

Washed out roads. Ranchers digging out cattle from huge snow drifts. Farmers trying to get through water to get hay to their cattle surrounded by water, or going by boat to check on their pigs that still are in barns. Exhausted calves lying in mud. Horses standing in or nervously swimming through muddy or ice-filled water. Houses with water almost to their roofs. Dams and levees that have been breached or topped. Small towns almost deserted as they lie several feet deep in water, debris and large chunks of ice shoved into their streets and up against foundations of homes and businesses.

There are aerial shots taken from small planes of what looks like a muddy ocean sprawling in all directions, pouring over interstate and county roads and railroads. Restless rivers rushed far beyond their banks, carved violent channels through areas no one has seen before and overwhelmed the heartland of America.

There have also been rescues of people by helicopters, fishing boats, airboats and army vehicles -- and even some Air Force bases have been flooded.

Weary first responders and volunteers have been working long days to try to help people. One of three known fatalities so far was farmer James Wilke from Columbus, Nebraska, who went with his tractor to try to save a stranded motorist -- as he crossed a creek, Wilke's tractor broke through the bridge, and he was swept away.

Probably a lot of farmers could easily see themselves doing what Wilke had done. After all, rural people are raised to help others out in times of trouble.

It's a miracle so few people have been killed so far, especially with how high and quickly the water rose in many areas, and in how there was total whiteout conditions during the blizzard. People affected by these weather extremes have expressed gratitude for being alive, and for the help of neighbors, strangers, first responders, even the National Guard.

The water is receding in some places, but continuing to rise in others.

DTN Senior Ag Meteorologist Bryce Anderson, in this week's Reporter's Notebook video, explained some of the causes of this year's destructive floods and also noted when he first warned about the risk of spring flooding -- at the DTN Ag Summit in early December in Chicago. He has continued to warn of the risk almost daily since then.

The ingredients and warning signals were there: ground still saturated from last fall before freeze-up; several big snowstorms and blizzards, especially after Christmas; very low temperatures leading to snow piling up on frozen ground, rivers and creeks; and then an inevitable turn in weather as spring approached. There was a jump in temperatures, high winds, and moderate to heavy rain -- all leading to rapid snow melt, mixing with the rain -- and water levels rose rapidly.

In his blog Friday, Anderson gives the 2019 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) spring flood outlook that has just been released. The flooding danger is far from over. He reports that most of the Midwest and Delta, along with much of the Great Plains, are at risk for moderate to major flooding through the 2019 spring. (https://www.dtnpf.com/…)

Even in places where the water is going down, the estimates of flooding losses keep rising. On Friday, Iowa gave a preliminary figure of $1.6 billion. Nebraska has increased its estimate to $1.4 billion.

Hundreds of millions of that is tied to agricultural losses and damage to infrastructure. Thousands of buildings have also been damaged, some minor and others are complete losses.

The governors are requesting -- and in some cases already getting -- federal assistance. Politicians are speaking up, stressing the severity and magnitude of the incomprehensible flooding is beyond the capability and resources of state and local governments.

As water recedes and people return to their homes, businesses and farmland, there is a lot of healing to do, as well as cleanup.

"We're so out of tears, we can't cry anymore," one woman told a local TV reporter, after showing the destruction to her place.

Mud and water are now slowly being pumped out of some homes and businesses; however, there remains a lot of water standing in rural communities and fields, and not everyone has been able to return home.

The swollen rivers continue to churn and rush on to challenge other places and break more hearts.

It will take months or even years to recover from these weather events. With so many acres flooded, so many fields will see delayed planting or perhaps not be planted at all this year or longer. (https://www.dtnpf.com/…)

Farmers and ranchers will try to figure out financially how to recover from damages to agriculture. (https://www.dtnpf.com/…)

For the first few days of the floods, people begged the rest of the country not to ignore or forget them. In a nation where it seems every week there is another weather disaster that attracts media like moths to a light bulb, until the next disaster diverts the media away, people worry what will become of them.

Despite the growing number of emergency declarations by state governors, Vice President Mike Pence visiting some of the flood areas on March 19, and tweets of support from the president, people worry about this life-changing event.

Yet, as many heartbreaking stories as there were of how bad a terrible blizzard and historic flooding had hit the western Midwest and Northern Plains -- with Nebraska being one of the hardest-hit places -- there were more than an equal amount of heartwarming stories and examples of kindness and caring.

It wasn't long after the floods began that people patiently waited in long line-ups, their cars and pickups filled with donations for people in the flood zones. They brought bottled water, diapers, cleaning supplies, food. Semi-trailers and other trucks were filled with donations from churches and businesses. Convoys of trucks carrying round bales rolled in from out of state. Convoys of trucks pulled horse trailers as people moved horses and other livestock to higher ground or to places of people who offered to take care of the animals. Many people in communities answered the call to fill hundreds of thousands of sandbags.

Pilots of small planes offered free rides between communities for people stranded from getting to their families, to work or even to hospitals. People opened up their homes to offer free places to stay for those who now were without homes. Shelters opened to offer food, places to sleep, and clothing for those who lost everything. Some people volunteered to help pump out water from houses for free. Volunteers slipped on their boots and work gloves, grabbed cleaning gear, and began to help people clean their homes after the water retreated. Red Cross and other organizations collected money from around the country -- and beyond.

Prayers are being offered for the heartland from across the country and from other countries after requests for help spread like wildfire on social media.

Even national media are reporting from on the air and on the ground.

Even international media are reporting on the horrific conditions that are affecting this part of the world -- and especially how farmers and ranchers were affected, and the billions of dollars this will cost to recover and rebuild.

Even people who live far away are being touched by the scenes they see, the stories they read and the way they see the Midwest pulling together to survive this challenging time.

People are still asking how they can help, and there are still ways help can be given. Here are some ways: (https://www.dtnpf.com/…),although people are also cautioned to be careful and protect themselves against scams or fraud.

The heartland has shown the world it has heart -- and determination -- and will recover and rebuild from this heartbreaking time, as sure as the mighty rivers continue to flow in this country.

Elaine Shein can be reached at elaine.shein@dtn.com

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