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Risk of flooding remains high into the spring in Nebraska, Iowa due to a mix of threats

Risk of flooding remains high into the spring in Nebraska, Iowa due to a mix of threats

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Grain bins are surrounded by floodwater west of Hamburg, Iowa. In the background is the Omaha Public Power District’s coal-fired power plant in Nebraska City. With the arrival of spring, heavy rains and thunderstorms could add to the risk of continued flooding.

Most rivers are dropping, but the risk of flooding is far from over.

“We can’t pretend this is over,” said David Pearson, a National Weather Service hydrologist who sounded the alarm about the potential for historic flooding in Nebraska and Iowa several days before it hit. “It’s going to be a long time before we see our rivers get back to normal.”

On Thursday, the National Weather Service announced that nearly two-thirds of the lower 48 states face a higher than normal risk of flooding, for a variety of reasons including the potential of higher than normal spring rains.

So if you’re on the fence about buying flood insurance, now is the time to do it, he said. There remains enough of a long-term risk that homeowners could still benefit despite the usual 30-day delay in effective date.

“Absolutely,” Pearson said. “For most people it doesn’t cost a lot, especially when compared to the out-of-pocket cost of repairing.”

A mixture of threats are ahead:

» Rain this weekend poses a short-term risk of renewed flooding across northern Nebraska and the Niobrara River Valley.

» Spring rains pose an ongoing risk across Nebraska, Iowa and other water-logged central U.S. states.

» Snowpack along the Big Sioux and James Rivers could send pulses of floodwater down the Missouri River in the weeks ahead.

» Snowpack in the Rocky Mountains will wash down the Platte River at some point in the next month or so.

High risk of flooding continues into the spring for much of U.S.

States that have experienced recent historic flooding remain at highest risk of flooding during a spring that is expected to carry a widespread risk of at least minor flooding. The National Weather Service on Wednesday released its flood forecast for the spring. 

Weekend rain

Forecasts for this weekend are calling for ¼-inch to an inch of rain Friday into Saturday across portions of Nebraska. The latest storm track would deliver the heaviest rains across central and northern Nebraska. The system is too far away to be certain, so people should monitor forecasts.

“The flood risk is going to increase this weekend,” Cliff Cole, a meteorologist with the weather service office in North Platte said of northern Nebraska and the Panhandle. Something to hope for is that warmer weather in the days ahead thaws the ground enough in those areas that it can absorb runoff.

Spring conditions

Even before this major flooding hit, Nebraska and Iowa were at a higher-than-usual risk of spring flooding because of saturated soils and high stream levels.

The arrival of spring Wednesday increases that because of the heavier rains and thunderstorms headed this way, said Ken Dewey, an applied climatologist with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

“It’s a big deal,” Dewey said of the potent mix of a water-logged watershed and the arrival of spring.

Missouri River snowpack

The snowmelt that will affect the Missouri is coming mostly from tributaries that feed into the river below Gavins Point Dam — the Big Sioux and James Rivers, for example. While the data aren’t easily available, Pearson said it’s his hunch that there’s more than the average amount of water in that Plains snow.

The Missouri River will continue dropping over the next few days before turning around, probably at the end of March, and rising with snowmelt, Pearson said. At some point, he said, the Missouri River most likely will be back to flood stage.

“We don’t have enough time to get the (Missouri) river back to normal in between the record, historic event that we’re coming out of and the beginning of the Plains snowmelt,” he said.

What’s not an immediate threat is the larger geographic area of Plains and mountain snowpack that is held back by the five massive dams above Gavins Point Dam. The dam system has about 96 percent of the normal space available to store runoff, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the dams.

Platte River snowpack

Snowmelt flowing into the Platte River is a concern, but that is still some time away, said Jerilyn Billings Wright, a meteorologist with the weather service in Hastings.

In the meantime, people need to be careful, Cole said, especially when driving.

“One thing we know is our infrastructure, our road system, has been weakened by the previous flood,” Cole said. “We don’t know if it’s to the point where what’s normally a minor flood situation is going to cause significant damage to a weakened structure. Be very careful driving.”

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Nancy Gaarder helps cover public safety and weather events as an editor on The World-Herald's breaking news desk. Follow her on Twitter @gaarder. Email: nancy.gaarder@owh.com

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An aerial view of Missouri Valley, Iowa, as floodwaters impacted the area on Friday.

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