By Samantha Hargens, Lena Nelson and Riley Tolan-Keig
How does a small town of just over 1,400 people recover from a flood that has caused damage to 352 homes and thousands of acres of farmland? Two years later, Wood River is still finding a solution.
In March of 2019, the combination of rain, ice and snow caused a three-day flood that inundated the town of Wood River causing damage to homes and farmland. Wood River is a town in southwestern Hall County, Nebraska. Since then, the town has made slow but significant progress in recovering from the disaster. Now, the town is focused on finding a solution to prevent another flood from happening.
“It was a terrible time. Wood River has kind of recovered,” said Curtis Rohrich, a local farmer.
Rohrich said that Wood River has done a good job of cleaning up since the flood and maintaining the town, but the original cause of the flood has not been resolved. The area that drained into the river had many dams that held the water and allowed the runoff to drain at much slower rate but were removed and later became farmable acres. Rohrich said when high precipitation events, such as floods and flash floods, occur, the water that drains into the river comes at a much faster rate.
According to Rohrich, the Natural Resources Conservation Service had said to either fix the dams or take them out.
“Many were taken out so it could become farmable ground,” Rohrich said.
Now when a heavy rain comes, water that was otherwise caught and filtered in the pre-existing dams runs into creeks that lead to Wood River’s river which then runs into the Platte River. During cold months, all of the rivers are frozen and the melting snow or rain has nowhere to go, so it floods the town. If the ice or snow melts, the banks break and the water continues to move. Current breaches have not yet been repaired.
“Wood River is flat, so the water spreads out all over the town,” Rohrich said.
Rohrich and his oldest son farm corn and soybeans on 2,400 acres of land. The water around his property was about three feet deep and damaged 320 acres or 13% of his farmland.
“This farm ground right here is some of the best in the United States, it wasn’t meant to be a holding pond or a detention cell,” Rohrich said.
Rohrich said his farm production is low now because the flood damaged the topsoil. Topsoil is the first 5-10 inches of soil that have the highest concentration of organic matter. Topsoil contains minerals, water, oxygen and organic matter that are crucial to the success of crops and plants. The flood brought corn stalks and debris that disturbed and ruined the topsoil of his land.
“It was about three nights of nervousness, the water was moving and there were a lot of ice jams that you could hear moving around at night,” Rohrich said.
Friends and family from the community and surrounding towns came to help pump water away from their homes.
“It was a ton of work. We had good friends that helped and we were very fortunate,” Rohrich said.
In 2014, Rohrich built a shed next to his home to store farm equipment. The foundation of the shed was built up making it three feet taller than the road because of previous floods essentially creating a levee around his house. Because of this, no water entered his home.
“In my lifetime, a flood has happened three times, sometimes I joke that I feel like I’m Moses,” Rohrich said.
While the residents of Wood River fought against the rising water, some town officials also rose to action.
Town officials in Wood River had to improvise and adapt to the natural disaster, but they weren’t alone. Many people, businesses and churches from the surrounding areas came to help.
Jeni Maloney, the Wood River Fire Department president, said the community came together during the flood.
“Your neighbor needed you, so you did it,” Maloney said.
According to Maloney, the fire department had so many people asking about volunteering that the department had to make a spreadsheet to help organize the volunteers.
“We did get a lot of people that weren’t directly involved in the flood area that came in [to help],” Maloney said. “The cleanup was massive. And then it turned into a whole project on its own.”
Local churches helped with the sandbagging, then HyVee and Applebees came and provided food for residents and volunteers. But despite the extra help, the town still had obstacles to overcome. One problem: sandbags.
Maloney said that when the flood came, they realized that they didn’t have enough sandbags. Instead, volunteers put water in bags originally used for corn as a sandbag alternative. This way, they were able to redirect the water.
“We had to improvise, which I think is the best thing about a fire department,” Maloney said. “You got a group of guys and women that are able to put their minds together and say, let’s do this.”
But Wood River wasn’t able to improvise on everything. Something that stunk, literally, was the backup of sewage water off of Green Street. According to Sara Arnett, a member of the nonprofit Wood River Vision Board 2020, the sewage backup happened when the sewer lift station became compromised by the flood.
“It wasn’t the entire town that was impacted by the sewer backup, but a lot of us on that street,” Arnett said. “And then, there were people that had [sewer] water in their basements and collapsed foundations.”
Arnett said she lives on Green Street and was lucky enough that the sewer water only reached her garage doors. But some of her neighbors were not as lucky.
According to Greg Cramer, the mayor of Wood River, around 352 houses were damaged with up to 45 of those having structural damage. Some houses were damaged by the sewage water, but others were affected just by the flooding.
Another issue that Wood River faced during the 2019 flooding was corn stalks. The frozen ground kept the water from draining, and the corn stalks left over from the previous autumn’s harvest exacerbated the issue.
“I couldn’t even believe it, and then, coming in and seeing all the corn stalks, just corn stalks everywhere. You could understand how water couldn’t drain,” Arnett said.
According to Maloney, the corn stalks plugged the draining system in the town’s ditches. The water had nowhere to go with the congested ditches combined with the frozen ground and backed-up sewers.
Months later, the town of Wood River came together to discuss the natural disaster and what to do if it happens again, Maloney said.
“We met at the city building and started going ‘if this was to happen again, what should we do,’” Maloney said.
According to Cramer, the town has since then fixed a lot of issues that worsened the flooding, such as keeping the drains clean in the ditches. Additionally, some residents have installed backflow prevention devices to prevent sewer water from entering their basements.
“You need to be prepared. I mean, that’s the biggest thing,” Cramer said.
Although it’s been two years since the 2019 flooding, the town of Wood River is still recovering, according to Cramer. Now, Cramer and other town officials are working with the Natural Resources District to make a floodplain project that would help with future flooding.
One of the Central Platte NRD’s duties is to assess the management of the floodplain and address damages from flooding that does occur. The town of Wood River falls within the area of the Central Platte NRD’s duties.
“We already have a pretty major flood control project that protects Grand Island along the Wood River, but Gibbon and Wood River had some very serious flooding in 2019 that we are looking at ways to address those town’s watersheds,” said Lyndon Vogt, the general manager of the Central Platte Natural Resources District.
The NRD received a grant of $700,000 for a study of the floodplain around Wood River and has also received a Watershed and Flood Prevention Operation grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a federal agency, to study a portion of the Wood River. The portion of the river extends from north of Kearney to the confluence of the Wood River to the Platte River.
Central Platte NRD also contracted JEO Consulting to help conduct the study of the portion of the river that includes the town of Wood River. JEO, a Wahoo, Nebraska-based company offers consulting in surveying, planning and engineering.
“A lot of floodplain management starts with understanding the historical nature of flooding and what the problems are, as well as public engagement,” said Adam Rupe, a project manager at JEO.
The Central Platte NRD has held several meetings with people from the Wood River area and the consultants to talk about watershed management. The overall planning process will take approximately two years.
“We have been to several meetings that the NRD held so there is that communication,” Cramer said.
While Wood River residents and city council members have attended some of these meetings, Cramer said there could be more public outreach.
The flooding that Wood River experienced in 2019 was considered to be a 100-year flood event. The United States Geological Survey describes a 100-year flood event as an extreme flood that has a 1% chance of happening every year.
“The agricultural community is really leery of changing the flood zone and wetlands because of the stipulations that come with federal projects,” Cramer said.
Stipulations range depending on the federal program and project, but can include anything from proper maintenance of wetlands to maintenance of habitat on lands on conservation reserve programs.
While the study continues, there are various solutions that could aid in watershed management. Wetlands are often recommended by NRCS since they are also a natural way to manage flooding. Wetlands are able to hold water that runs off the land, therefore, reducing the amount of water that may be in a single flood.
“You can’t give up, the county has given us a little [monetary] break because of the damage but I don’t know if they’ll continue to do that,” Rohrich said. Rohrich was born and raised in Wood River, settled down and started his family. His family attends church and his kids go to school and he said this is where he’s going to stay.
“I want Wood River to thrive, it’s my community. Wood River is very important to me and it always will be,” Rohrich said.
Community members say that as a whole they are confident they can come together and continue towards a strong recovery.
“A community comes just together,” Arnett said. “You do what needs to be done and make sure that nobody slips through the cracks.”