All four northern Panhandle counties and most cities within their confines have declared a state of emergency in the aftermath of Winter Storm Ulmer. The declarations place them among the 81 counties and 98 cities across the state that will seek aid through the federal disaster declaration signed by President Donald Trump.
“All four counties, I am confident, will meet their thresholds for disaster declaration, just with road damage,” said Nan Gould of Region 23 Emergency Management.
Box Butte County fast-tracked its emergency declaration and was listed among the disaster counties in last week’s initial federal declaration. She expects Dawes, Sioux and Sheridan to be added to the list in the coming days. Each county must meet a threshold of damages to public infrastructure to qualify for the aid; that number is based on population, Gould said.
Sioux County has the lowest threshold at $4,955.58, and Box Butte has the highest threshold of the four at $42,744.24. Dawes County must document $34,777.96 in damages, while Sheridan County’s number is $20,672.82.
Cities in the northern Panhandle that have also issued disaster declarations include Harrison, Crawford, Chadron, Hay Springs, Rushville, Gordon and Alliance, according to the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency. Preliminary figures statewide from the blizzard and flooding that hit the state place damages to public infrastructure at more than $553 million and private damages at more than $89 million. Assessments continue as snow melts and floodwaters recede, and the tally will likely climb higher.
Dawes County had 32 roads closed due to storm damage as of Monday afternoon.
“Every road has issues. We still haven’t gotten everything flagged,” said Interim Road Superintendent Larry Hankin, who urged caution. “Don’t drive through the road closed signs.”
Rural residents are reporting running water in places it has never been, Hankin said, and that water is running over roadways, creating washouts in the roadbed.
“Culverts are washing out but the bridges seem to be holding for now,” Hankin said.
Sioux County is experiencing similar conditions, and Gordon Mathis of the Sioux County Roads Department asked the public to limit driving on the county roads.
“If you don’t really live out there, don’t go out there,” he said. “They’re just impassable, period.”
High water running across the roads has washed away culverts and caused washouts six to seven feet deep in places, Mathis said.
“Our road situation is pretty bad. It’s going to take a lot of work and a lot of time.”
With snowmelt still occurring and rain in the forecast, Mathis said residents will have to be patient as the county deals with widespread road damage. As soon as weather allows, the road department plans to prioritize impassable roads to repair them enough to open them again. They will then switch to the long-term phase and complete the rest of the repairs as they work through NEMA.
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Farmers and ranchers are still determining the impact of Winter Storm Ulmer on their cattle herds, pastures and crop ground as well.
The loss to regional producers could be in the hundreds, said Extension Educator Jack Arterburn, who said his sources estimate losses at between 500-600 head.
“(It’s) predominately calves that could not get dry. Once dry, calves are very resilient, but if they don’t get dry, or if they get wet, especially when temperatures are low and the wind is blowing, survival decreases,” he said.
Producers will have access to programs through the Farm Service Agency and National Resources Conservation Service. Ranchers can contact their local FSA offices about Livestock Indemnity programs, said Kelli Willey, the director of the Chadron office. The FSA must be notified of livestock losses within 30 days, and documentation is critical. Regional offices are also applying for approval to offer the Emergency Conservation Program, Willey said. If that program is approved, it will help producers repair fences, dams and remove debris left behind by flooding.
The agency announced Monday that all Nebraska counties will qualify for emergency grazing on Conservation Reserve Program acres as well.
The NRCS’ Environmental Quality Incentives Program is also available to help producers dispose of livestock carcasses. Individuals must sign up to determine eligibility by April 5, said Robin Foulk. Producers who receive assistance must dispose of the carcasses by burying them on site, sending them to a rendering plant or making arrangements with SWANN, she said. A second sign-up opportunity will also be offered, with the deadline for that portion of the program set for May 1.
“There are still people finding calves in snow banks,” Foulk said, “and calves may die later.”
Meanwhile, cities like Crawford and Chadron are dealing with blizzard impacts including snow removal efforts and localized flooding, said Chadron Public Works Director Milo Rust. The Crawford City Park remains closed due to road conditions after flooding in the park receded, said Mayor Connie Shell.
Gould cautioned the public as they begin clean-up and look to aid their neighbors with those efforts.
“This is when scammers come out of the woodwork,” she said. Vet organizations thoroughly before making donations and ensure that contractors are legitimate before hiring them.
“If there is anything questionable, give (Region 23) a call,” Gould concluded.
The Upper Niobrara White Natural Resources District also is encouraging residents to consider having their domestic wells tested for nitrates and bacteria after the flooding.
“The flooding in the area creates the potential for both bacteria and nitrate contamination in domestic wells. The UNWNRD is equipped to assist the rural residents in the District with this potential hazard,” said Haley Anders, UNWNRD Water Resources Manager.
Through the Domestic Water Sampling Program, the UNWNRD is able to test any domestic well within the district, free of charge with bacteria results available with 24 hours. Nitrate results are generally returned within five days.