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Flooding In Parts Of Nebraska And Iowa Continues To Cause Serious Disruption


In Nebraska and Iowa, the damage caused by last month's widespread flooding is still causing serious disruption. Roads remained ruined. Railroad tracks are still damaged. Bridges are out, water lines severed. Frank Morris of member station KCUR begins our story in Nebraska, standing on a crucial bridge that was crippled by the flood.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: One of the many places where the northernmost part of central Nebraska is cut off from the rest of the state is here at the Niobrara River on Highway 11 south of Butte. The bridge is still here, but it is mangled - rebar coming out of the concrete, twisted like spaghetti. You can walk across it, but you can't drive it. It's going to take months to fix at least.


LARRY BOSKA: So you're kind of, like, stuck here.

MORRIS: Larry Boska raises cattle in Boyd County, a sliver of Nebraska wedged between the Niobrara River and the South Dakota line. It's remote and rural. Many people here shop and work south of the river in Holt County. Boska says detours have tripled the time it takes to drive to town. Just getting around locally can be treacherous, too.

BOSKA: You just take off and drive some of these gravel roads there. Make sure you have a four-wheel drive. Don't take your little car.

MORRIS: It's a tough situation. Boyd County has fewer than 2,000 residents. They skew older and poorer than the national average. Per capita income is about $26,000 a year - this in a county facing almost $4 1/2 million worth of emergency roadwork.


MORRIS: Heavy equipment is roaring on both sides of the Niobrara River at Redbird Road today, where a stout little county bridge somehow survived the flood.

JOHN PROUTY: And this is the only road for a hundred miles to get across the Niobrara River. This is a big deal.

MORRIS: John Prouty is working 14-hour days, running this operation and others - in fact, a whole construction company - from the seat of his road grader.

PROUTY: I'm supposed to be management. I'm not supposed to be an operator. But we're a little short on people. We've gotten stretched pretty thin, pushing it pretty hard.

MORRIS: And Prouty says it's this way across much of Nebraska.

PROUTY: Every contractor in the area is busy. And the rest of the state has so much devastation that I can't call a friend of mine from Grand Island and say send me equipment because he's too busy with his equipment there.

MORRIS: Last month's blizzard and ensuing flood at one point blocked a third of Nebraska's state highway system - one-third. In his office in Lincoln, State Department of Transportation Director Kyle Schneweis was now faces an enormous, complex rebuilding job.

KYLE SCHNEWEIS: The scale of this is the real challenge because we're used to flooding or a bridge being damaged. But we're not used to 27 of our bridges being damaged all at one time and a hundred projects that we have to manage all at one time.

MORRIS: Schneweis says the state is looking at a hundred million dollars in emergency repairs. That's almost a quarter of the state's entire annual road construction budget. Railroad lines are cut, too.


MORRIS: At this quarry in northwest Missouri, semi-trucks cart off 20-ton loads of rock every minute or so, hauling it away to repair miles of damaged railroad tracks. Suzanne Patterson runs the scale house here.

SUZANNE PATTERSON: Each of us are doing - putting in 12 hours a day. The railroad needs to get their tracks up running again.

MORRIS: And then there's water. The Missouri River is still running over flood stage in places and pouring through levees that blew out last month. And while there's plenty of water, in some communities, the stuff coming out of the taps still isn't safe to drink.

GAIL SPENCER: We didn't need this at all.

MORRIS: Back in Boyd County, Neb., Gail Spencer keeps the books for the Rural Water District. Catastrophic flooding took out the main source of water. Restoring it will take at least a month and cost more than a million dollars. Meantime, people can't drink the water, nor can tens of thousands of cattle being raised here. That plus the loss of housing and the serious transportation problems are convincing some long-term residents it's time to move.

SPENCER: We hate to hear that. None of these towns can stand to lose anybody. None of the churches can stand to lose anybody - the schools. It's going to be a challenge.

MORRIS: A challenge to repair roads and water lines on a tight budget in a hurry and try to contain the ongoing economic damage caused by this year's flooding. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Boyd County, Neb. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Morris has supervised the reporters in KCUR's newsroom since 1999. In addition to his managerial duties, Morris files regularly with National Public Radio. He’s covered everything from tornadoes to tax law for the network, in stories spanning eight states. His work has won dozens of awards, including four national Public Radio News Directors awards (PRNDIs) and several regional Edward R. Murrow awards. In 2012 he was honored to be named "Journalist of the Year" by the Heart of America Press Club.