Towns in Nebraska and western Iowa are being inundated by rising floodwaters, with residents across the region being evacuated as levees break or rivers overflow their banks.
Roads are closing across the state as they become impassible, and people displaced by the waters are taking shelter in hospitals, schools and other community buildings.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said at midday Thursday that it was increasing water releases at Gavins Point Dam near Yankton, South Dakota, to 50,000 cubic feet per second and plan to increase it again to 60,000 cfs later Thursday or Friday.
Officials said runoff between Fort Randall and Gavins Point Dam is very high and continues to increase because of snowmelt, heavy rain and wet soil.
"We know there are communities experiencing flooding, or nearing that condition, along the Missouri downstream of our dams,” said John Remus, chief of the corps’ Missouri River Water Management Division in Omaha. “We are managing releases from Gavins Point as judiciously as we can in order to lessen the impact downstream.”
Parts of Norfolk under evacuation order; also Washington, Saunders Counties
Evacuations were underway in Norfolk.
Norfolk city officials on Thursday urged people in areas threatened by floodwaters to move to safety.
“I’m telling you, if you’re told to evacuate, please evacuate. If you choose to stay where you’re at, you’re on your own,” said Shane Weidner, Norfolk's public safety director. “A large swath of Nebraska is affected by this perfect storm. Each community and its citizens are going to have to take care of themselves.”
Weidner said Elkhorn River levels were reaching the record heights seen in 2010, and it may get worse. He said, however, that there were unconfirmed reports of drops at Neligh, which would provide relief.
The city's biggest concern, however, is the north fork of the Elkhorn River. It has not receded and will not for some time, Weidner said.
At 11 a.m., the National Weather Service issued a flash-flood emergency for residents along the Platte River from Schuyler to Ashland. Officials said a surge of water was traveling down the river due to an ice jam breakup. Residents along the river need to evacuate immediately, the alert said.
In Washington County, Sheriff Mike Robinson said all county roads east of Fort Calhoun were closed because of Missouri River flooding.
"My advice to anyone living along the Missouri River or along any other rivers or streams is to evacuate now," Robinson said just before 11 a.m. "Get out now while you can."
In Dodge County, an evacuation was underway in Woodcliff Lakes near Fremont just before noon, according to Dustin Wilcox, a spokesman for the Nebraska Association of Natural Resources Districts. A wall of water was working down the Platte, he said.
"Anyone living near the Platte or in the floodplain needs to get out before it’s too late," he said.
First responders in Saunders County, Nebraska, were busy Wednesday night into Thursday with evacuations, said Saunders County Sheriff Kevin Stukenholtz. All residents at Horseshoe Lake near Mahoney State Park were accounted for and many have evacuated, he said.
Evacuation at Willow Point Lake near Ashland began Thursday morning, Stukenholtz said. The lake is on the south side of the Platte River.
"The good news is that (Nebraska) Highway 92, east and west of Wahoo, is open," Stukenholtz said. On Wednesday, he said, "we were practically on an island in Wahoo."
Nebraska, Iowa roads closed
In western Iowa, large stretches of Interstate have been closed because of flooding. Click here to see the Nebraska Department of Transportation's live map.
I-29 is closed in both directions from exit 55 at 25th Street in Council Bluffs to exit 75 at U.S. Highway 30 in Missouri Valley. Drivers were encouraged to use the Highway 75 detour through north Omaha.
Interstate 680 also is closed between the Mormon Bridge and I-29. Officials also have shut down I-80 between Minden and exit 71, 10 miles east of Crescent, Iowa, because of flooding, until noon Thursday.
In addition, U.S. Highway 30 is closed in both directions between Missouri Valley and Dunlap, Iowa. Officials suggest eastbound drivers go north on I-29, then east on Iowa Highway 175.
In southeast Washington County, flooded roadways are causing problems, said Washington County Chief Deputy Sheriff Kevin Willis.
"We're seeing trouble spots in the Arlington area, with Bell Creek and the Elkhorn River overflowing," Willis said. "(U.S.) Highway 30 is closed by the water."
County Road 34 east of Fort Calhoun is closed by Missouri River floodwaters, Willis said.
Snow in western Nebraska and westbound traffic filling up parking lots in Kearney prompted the Nebraska State Patrol to close westbound Interstate 80 from Grand Island to Wyoming after noon Thursday. Eastbound I-80 was closed from Wyoming to Ogallala. State roads in the Panhandle remained closed at midday.
Semi line up
2nd Avenue and 39th Street
Tru Cafe fence
30th Avenue near KHS
Antelope and 160th Roads
Archway, I-80 westbound
Cottonmill Avenue-Dawson PPD
Dawson PPD Flooded
Most state highways in north-central and northeast Nebraska have some closures because of flooding.
The giant storm that moved into Nebraska was the product of a rare phenomenon called bombogenesis, or bomb cyclone.
A winter storm warning remained in effect until 10 p.m. Thursday for several counties in northeast Nebraska. The National Weather Service in Valley forecast called for 1 to 4 inches of snow in Boone, Madison, Antelope, Pierce and Knox Counties.
Winds gusting from 50 to 60 mph could produce near-blizzard conditions, forecasters said. Cities in the path of the storm include Creighton, Bloomfield, Crofton, Verdigre, Niobrara, Elgin, Pierce, Albion and Norfolk.
In Omaha, it was 36 degrees at 1 p.m. Meteorologist Corey Mead of the National Weather Service office in Valley said the temperature would continue to drop throughout the day as a cold air mass moves through.
Mead predicted that no snow would accumulate, and less than a half-inch of rain was expected.
On Wednesday, .78 inches of rain fell at Eppley Airfield. After the rain ended, the sun came out and temperatures rose, topping out at 60 degrees.
"Winds (Thursday) are going to be quite strong," Mead said. "We're looking at winds from 35 to 40 mph, possibly gusting up to 50."
The chances for snow Thursday are strongest in northeast Nebraska, said Paul Walker, a meteorologist with AccuWeather. Up to 4 inches of snow is expected to accumulate along the Nebraska-South Dakota border, he said.
Over the weekend, temperatures are predicted to rise across the state, and dry conditions should prevail, Walker said. High temperatures in the region will be in the 40s Friday and Saturday before pushing up to 50 on Sunday.
"It should be a much quieter (weather) weekend in Nebraska as that massive storm moves on into eastern Minnesota and then Wisconsin," Walker said. "Eastern Nebraska will have a lot less wind as well."
Red Cross setting up shelters across the area; emergency lines open
Red Cross shelters have been set up in Fremont, Norfolk, North Loup and Randolph. In western Iowa, the Red Cross had set up shelters at Salem United Methodist Church in Council Bluffs.
The Nebraska State Patrol Highway Helpline is available 24 hours per day for motorists in need of assistance. Drivers can reach NSP by dialing *55 from any cell phone or 911 in an emergency.
World-Herald staff writer Alia Conley contributed to this report, which includes information from the World-Herald News Service.