Letter from Langdon: The ‘Maybe Disaster’ of Northwest Missouri
As flood debris festers in the spring sunshine, Congress and the state of Missouri can’t make up their minds whether to help – or even if there is a disaster. Meanwhile, the only thing getting repaired are the railroads.
Recovery continues in and along the Missouri Valley in Iowa.
And in Nebraska – where a dam burst on the Niobrara River leading to the collapse of many Missouri River levees and flooding downstream in Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas and Missouri – the landscape is bleak.
As is too often the case, it ain’t over till it’s over, and it ain’t over yet.
Governors in Iowa and Nebraska have declared disasters, and Nebraska has already deployed close to $12.5 million in aid to displaced workers, families, businesses, and farms hammered by the torrent of water, ice, and debris.
There’s been no disaster declaration in Missouri, where at least two counties in the northwest corner received the brunt of a record-setting crest close to two feet higher than any recorded flood.
My 80-year-old farm home has a new high water mark on the ground floor where there’s never been water before.
Now the Missouri Valley is impassable — due to road and bridge damage, and water — from US Hwy 34 near Plattsmouth, Nebraska, and Pacific Junction, Iowa, all the way down to Rulo, Nebraska, and Big Lake Missouri, on US 159. In all, four river crossings in a row are disabled. That also includes Highway 2, which connects Iowa and Nebraska at Nebraska City; and and US 136 in Missouri at the Brownville Nebraska bridge. Those 4 closures leave a 140 mile long transportation gap in the heart of America.
At last check US 59 leading from Missouri into Atchison, Kansas, south of the bridge at St. Joseph, Missouri, and Elwood, Kansas, was also under water.
Adding to the chaos of dislocated travelers looking for ways in or out are hundreds of tractor trailers and dump trucks hauling crushed rock to railroads whose rail lines were damaged by flowing water. That means a flood of trucks running up and down both sides of the river.
No matter how many blinking message boards and warning signs they drive past, some folks still haven’t gotten the memo, like the over the road trucker who flagged me down beside a road closed barricade at Highway 136 and I-29 last week. “Hey man, I don’t mean to bother you but WHERE DO I GO?” he asked. Where did he want to be? “Omaha”.
Well that’s easy. Take 136 to 275. Remember 275 is just a narrow 2 lane. Go north 40 miles through Missouri and Iowa to Glenwood where you hit 34. Take that west to I-29. You can go north from there to I-80 and west into Omaha, Nebraska. But don’t try to go south. I-29 is closed. And don’t try to go west on 34. It’s closed too.
Don’t thank me, brother. Thank the folks in charge of flood control here in middle America.
Glenwood, Iowa, sits high and dry where U.S. Hwy 34 breaks over a crest of Loess Hills into the Missouri Valley below. Hwy 34 picks up where I-29 north and south moves on, heading west into Nebraska. The river was bad there too, flooding parts of the Strategic Air Command base known as Offutt Air Force Base near Bellevue, Nebraska. The quickest way back south from there is to cross the river at the first working bridge in Bellevue, a toll bridge, and hook up with Hwy 75 that itself was closed for a while where it crosses the Platte River. Railroad crews are finishing up repairs to the Union Pacific bridge on the rail line that runs parallel to 75. A log jam and thundering water appeared to have sent a section of the bridge crashing into the river. To get to the problem workers dumped thousands of tons of big limestone rock called riprap into the river to make an peninsula of stone leading to the break.
There’s not much evidence of clean up anywhere, so debris clearly identifies where water was, if it’s not still there. Even the scenic drive to Glenwood is marred by abandoned belongings of every description: farm field residue, garbage, tree limbs, and in some cases entire groves of trees in a pile. Some people are finding the remains of hapless livestock caught in the torrent.
And, with warming weather, it’s all starting to stink.
Other than a “look out below” shoutout from above and hurried attempts to stall the flood with sandbags and hastily built barriers, the most notable response to this flood has been from the railroads, where in some cases repairs are almost complete. At my home, as is the case for many of my neighbors, water continues to flow and block rural roads, even washing some away. But the railroad has deployed enough resources to overcome, as the rest of us can only watch and wait.
There’s no such thing as a closed road where the railroad is concerned. State troopers here have been forced to sit beside interstate on-ramps where travelers see rock trucks bypassing road closed signs interpreting that to mean the roads are not really closed. One such traveler told me he was stopped by a trooper after bypassing a barricade. He explained to the trooper that his understanding was that many roads say they’re closed but really aren’t. “But” the trooper replied to him, “driving on a road that’s really closed can get you a real ticket.”
As the rails are put back in place, those same raised roadbeds form a kind of levee that blocks water out on one side and traps it on the other. Some wary residents here have seen a gradual water rise as grades are raised, blocking the floods retreat. Railroad repair crews have been spotted driving river levees, using them as private access where rails cross over them. Complaints to local law enforcement about railroad traffic damaging delicate levees have been met with a visit by the railroad police, company men bent on preserving the company’s rights as stated by law.
That’s because in addition to granting railroads an area equal to more than one tenth the area of the United States, Congress has also given some railroad police powers equal to those of federal law enforcement. Conflicts with the railroads can escalate into a federal case about as quick as you can say “Warren Buffett.”
Acts of God seem to have nothing on the railroads. The amount of money they’re spending right now is nothing short of biblical. But here in Missouri where the governor awaits word of our disaster or if we even have one, railroads have deployed thousands of workers and millions upon millions of dollars. The local economy, trashed by closed highways and unemployed service workers at restaurants and truck stops, has gotten a partial boost from none other than railroad workers massed at the borders of our flood, doing battle with nature and anyone else who gets in their way.
Flying farmers here have been taking pictures of rotting piles of grain still trapped by the river as the railroad restores tracks nearby. A local grain elevator has 3 million bushels of corn and soybeans jutting up out of the water. Roads to that remain either flooded or impassable. It’s a waiting game. Nearby, just across the tracks, a farmer’s collapsed bin lays next to thousands of wet bushels it once contained. Down the line are more farmers’ ruined grain and bins along with mine.
A few like me have ventured forth into the water in tall wheeled farm tractors or boats, sending out photos of rushing water and eroded roads and highways. Debris piles are everywhere, some floating, some parked on higher ground. And while Jefferson City seems blind deaf and dumb to disaster until roads firm enough they can walk on it, Des Moines and Lincoln saw it almost in the blink of an eye — or at about the same speed it took Spencer Dam to collapse.
Fremont County in Iowa and Nemaha County in Nebraska, counties adjacent to my county, Atchison, in Missouri, have been in state of disaster for three weeks.
Yet, we all share the same flood.
From where I stand waist deep and rising in my state’s maybe disaster, as Congress quibbles over who to help, whether to help, or how much, it looks as though the most effective government we have right now is the privatized corporate railroad.
They answer to no one, but somehow, miraculously, they serve us all.
Richard Oswald is a fifth-generation Missouri farmer from Langdon. He is membership and policy director for the Missouri Farmers Union.