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Making sense of March mayhem

Reflecting on floods and COVID-19 shutdowns causes feelings of anxiety, but there is hope and optimism after tragedy.

Many Nebraska farmers and ranchers would have reason to believe that the month of March has it out for them, and residents across the Great Plains might concur.

With COVID-19 vaccinations progressing, and the slow, but steady decline in new COVID-19 cases, there is great hope on the horizon as March 2021 comes to an end. However, March 2019 and 2020 saw back-to-back, historic “black swan” or rare occurrences across Nebraska and the region that turned our world upside down. From these days of March mayhem, it is good to reflect on the events, impacts and lessons learned.

The floods rushed down

For Nebraskans, the first “black swan” or rare occurrence took place in the early-morning hours on March 14, 2019. Residents and farmers across the state within the watersheds of the Missouri, Platte, Elkhorn and Niobrara rivers, among others, were forced to head for higher ground.

Torrential rains, coupled with an historic blizzard in the western part of the state — and ground that was still frozen from the cold, hard winter of 2018-19 — poured down precipitation that had nowhere to go.

Thanks to an unprecedented icy wall of semi-melted water rushing down the Niobrara River, the brute force of the surging water and gigantic ice chunks took out the Spencer Dam and bridges at Highway 281 and Morman Canal on Highway 12.

The Platte and Elkhorn rivers washed over levees, buried farmsteads, fields and center pivots, and surrounded cities such as Fremont from all outside road access.

At one point in time, 3.300 miles of Nebraska state highways were blocked or unpassable because of blizzard conditions or floods. Thousands were without power or fresh water. Human lives and the lives of hundreds of head of livestock were lost to the disaster.

The Nebraska National Guard kicked in, rescuing stranded residents from the rising water and even dumping big round bales of hay from a CH-47 Chinook helicopter to feed stranded cattle.

Emergency technicians and volunteers brought donated bottled water and food to communities that had been ravaged by floodwaters. Tales of harrowing, late-night evacuations, with neighbors risking their lives to save other neighbors by boat, tractor or any means possible, began to be told.

On March 18, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts declared a state of emergency. Hay flooded in from farmers in other states to help feed hungry, stranded livestock. Assistance poured in from across the country.

In the end, the floods cost Nebraska well over $1.3 billion in damages, including $449 million in damage to roads, levees and infrastructure. Local, township and county infrastructure suffered. Farmers took all year to clean up fields and farmsteads destroyed by floods.

By the end of 2019, much of the cleanup had commenced in earnest, and Nebraska residents, including ag producers, were anxious to put the year in the rearview mirror. They looked forward to the new year of 2020.

COVID-19 shutdowns

As the calendar moved to 2020, Nebraskans were hopeful that the “black swan” event of 2019 was behind them and that the new year would hold promise. In the end, 2020 just brought an entirely new and unexpected set of challenges.

China reported its first COVID-19 death on Jan. 11, 2020. The first positive U.S. case came on Jan. 21. On Feb. 7, 57 Americans who had been in Wuhan, China, where COVID-19 first had been discovered, landed in Omaha and were shuttled to the Nebraska National Guard Camp Ashland for quarantine.

Thirteen Americans who had tested positive for COVID-19 or were exposed were taken to the University of Nebraska Medical Center campus after landing at Eppley Airfield. UNMC began the first clinical trials in the U.S. for experimental treatment of COVID-19.

The state’s first confirmed positive case came on March 6. By March 11, the Nebraska School Activities Association restricted attendance at the Nebraska high school boys state basketball tournament in Lincoln to only immediate family members of the players and coaches.

On March 12, the College World Series in Omaha was canceled for 2020, and two days later, the state reported what was considered its first case of community spread of the virus. Gov. Pete Ricketts announced that no more than 10 people should gather in public spaces beginning on March 16. Schools made the difficult decision to move to remote learning.

At that time, no one could have known the longevity of the shutdowns and gathering restrictions that would last for the next year. Most people believed a year ago that the virus would be conquered in a few weeks, or a few months at the latest.

With lockdowns and the spread of COVID-19 came disruptions in agriculture, including disruptions in meat processing. Suddenly students and teachers were participating in remote learning; toilet paper was hard to find; and everyone began to think twice about gathering together.

We have come a long way since then. By early last week — one year after COVID-19 struck Nebraska with force — more than 207,000 positive cases had been reported in Nebraska since the beginning, with well over 2,200 deaths. Total U.S. deaths were above 542,000.

As of earlier last week, almost 25% of the U.S. population — more than 81 million people — had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Almost 44 million had been fully vaccinated. In Nebraska, more than 26% had already been vaccinated.

But the loss of life and time and the lingering impacts on our daily lives most likely have changed the lives of all Nebraskans and Americans forever. Twelve month ago, the phrases “social distancing” and “mask mandates” weren’t even in our vocabulary, but it is difficult today to find anyone who doesn’t know what they mean.

Survival and adaptation

With extreme challenges, come lessons of survival. In reflection on the challenges and tragedies of the past three years, there are a few things we’ve learned.

Click through our slideshow gallery to read some of those reflections and look back at a few stories from our Nebraska Farmer and Farm Progress coverage related to March 2019 and 2020 obstacles and the testaments to the strength of human spirit that came out of those dark times.

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