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Impact of the 2019 Nebraska Floods on Infrastructure

The impacts of the 2019 Nebraska floods were immense, with some documented and others remaining undocumented (“Mid-March 2019: Historical, Catastrophic Flooding Impacts Parts of Central/South Central Nebraska”, 2019). The floodwaters damaged and crippled various infrastructural facilities and structures in 84 out of 94 counties (“State of Nebraska Disaster Recovery Action Plan,” 2021), hampering rescue efforts, aid supplies provision, and evacuation of people in the flooded areas. These infrastructures were critical and provided essential services to the residents of Nebraska. Infrastructure facilities and structures include telecommunication services such as the internet; power and energy structures such as electricity grids; roadways and bridges; aviation structures such as airports; railway lines and associated systems and networks; water supply structures such as wells; waste management structures such as treatment plants and recreational facilities such as parks. The 2019 floods in Nebraska mainly impacted water, road, and railway infrastructures.

Impact on Road Infrastructure

According to National Weather Service (NWS), water covered hundreds of gravel and paved roadways in various counties affected by the floods in Nebraska State, making them impassable. The flooded roads, including the state and national highways, were either washed out or damaged by the floods. According to the NSW summary report, the federal Highway 30 was blocked from both sections due to the Wood River’s flooding. In some of the flooded areas along the highway, floodwater covering the road reached a depth of one to two feet. Highways belonging to Nebraska State also incurred extensive damage in various counties covered by floodwater. The damage to the state roads was severe, with some having large chunks of pavement caved in after swiftly moving floodwater eroded the ground underneath them. Also, the NSW recap report states that floodwater damaged 163 gravel roads in Hall county (“Mid-March 2019: Historical, Catastrophic Flooding Impacts Parts of Central/South Central Nebraska”, 2019).

In addition to roads and highways, the floodwaters swept off bridges, particularly those on county routes. The majority of the washed-out bridges were on gravel roads that crossed streams, with one crossing the Middle Loup River. The floods also impacted paved road bridges. According to a transcript from a National Public Radio (NPR) broadcast, the bridge across the Loup River south of Genoa on state Highway 39 was also washed out by floodwater, leaving the 26,000 residents of Neb, Freemont stranded with no access routes in and out of the area (Kelly, 2019). In areas where the floods did not sweep out bridges, substantial erosion of the supporting walls occurred, leaving them at risk of further damage in the future. The effects of the 2019 Nebraska floods were disastrous, damaging 37 bridges just in Howard county (“Mid-March 2019: Historical, Catastrophic Flooding Impacts Parts of Central/South Central Nebraska”, 2019).

Additionally, some of the bridges were ice jammed due to the increasing flow of water in the rivers, which resulted in the ice covering them breaking. The broken ice chunks ended up jamming the upstream side of bridges. In some areas, floodwater deposited them on the adjacent roads leading upto the bridge, making them impassable even after the floods water receded. According to the NSW, some of the ice slabs were as big as pick-up trucks requiring excavators to break them (“Mid-March 2019: Historical, Catastrophic Flooding Impacts Parts of Central/South Central Nebraska”, 2019).

Impact on Water Infrastructure

As mentioned earlier, most of the dams in Nebraska are not under the jurisdiction of the state. As a result, state officials responsible for the inspection and maintainance did not perform regular checks on most dams to ascertain their conditions. As a result of the increased flow of water mixed with the ice chunks detailed earlier, many dams in Nebraska were damaged or destroyed during the 2019 floods, most notably the failure and collapse of the Spencer Dam. The dam’s failure was caused by a high water flow rate and rapid snow melt in the Great Plains where River Niobrara flow through, resulting in its destruction and mass flooding downstream (International Water Power & Dam Construction, 2020). Also, prior to the floods, a 2018 report by the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources (NDNR) identified four existing deficiencies that could lead to the dam failure in extreme conditions.

The Nebraska Public Power District owned and operated the Spencer dam to generate hydroelectric power (HEP), and its failure also contributed to power shortage. Those dams not destroyed by the icy floodwater incurred massive wear and tear, which weakened them in the event of future storms and floods. Also, the Washington Post reported that numerous dikes and levees failed, flooding the neighboring communities near them (Livingstone, 2019). Water sources in engulfed towns were also contaminated or compromised, leaving the people in these areas depending on the water the emergency response teams provided. On March 18th, 2019, an NPR broadcast reported that the floods had breached more than 200 levees in four states affected by the floods, including Nebraska (Kelly, 2019).

Impact on Railway Infrastructure

The floods also had a severe impact on trains. Railroad tracks located in flooded areas were shut down for several days. Freight and passenger trains were rerouted or canceled, leaving evacuating residents and raw materials transported using trains without rail services. Because of the widespread flooding in some areas, the rerouting options for trains were also severy limited. Floodwater also eroded and washed away the bed beneath train tracks in certain sections, rendering them impassable. On some railroad bridges, erosion occurred to the abutments, which weakened their structure and increased their risk of being damaged in the event of further erosion.

Apart from the infrastructure discussed above, the 2019 Nebraska floods also imparted other types of infrastructure. Some of the affected areas experienced power shortages and outages due to damage to individual electrical meters and the failure of HEP-producing dams such as the Spencer Dam. Two substations and transmission lines were also inundated with water and destroyed, belonging to the Omaha Public Power District (“State of Nebraska Disaster Recovery Action Plan,” 2021). The floods also disrupted communication lines in most water-covered regions, making the response and rescue efforts more difficult. For instance, Post offices in water-covered towns were closed down and temporarily evacuated to nearby offices disturbing mail operations.

Furthermore, the floods destroyed various recreation facilities such as a bridge near Sargent, a historic site. NSW reported that in several towns such as Wood River and Dannebrog, flood water on some town streets reached three to six feet deep, shutting off the sewer systems in these towns (“Mid-March 2019: Historical, Catastrophic Flooding Impacts Parts of Central/South Central Nebraska”, 2019). Another report by the State of Nebraska indicated the 2019 floods destroyed 81 wastewater treatment facilities. Furthermore, the 2019 Nebraska floods also destroyed multiple fire stations, for example, the fire station in Fremont (“State of Nebraska Disaster Recovery Action Plan,” 2021).

Shortcomings of the Nebraska State Government

Several shortcomings significantly increased the impact of the 2019 Nebraska floods. First, the discrepancies in the jurisdiction of dams located in the state made it difficult for state officials to inspect and assess them. The Nebraska Dam Safety program, which is responsible for regulating around 3000 dams across the state, rated 600 of these dams as being in poor condition. Furthermore, the program had many additional tasks, resulting in a tremendous burden compared to the number of the workforce, which had an influence on its quality (International Water Power & Dam Construction, 2020). The State of Nebraska also had insufficient funding to construct flood control infrastructures such as dams, levees, dikes, and drainage ditches which could have helped mitigate the impact of the 2019 floods. Some of the existing flood control infrastructures were also in poor condition and needed repair and proper maintenance. Additionally, some of the repairs were ad hoc leaving the facilities vulnerable and at risk of being damaged by extreme disasters. Moreover, several infrastructural facilities and structures were located in the floodplain, making them exposed to floodwater, which adversely impacted them, cutting off the critical services (“State of Nebraska Disaster Recovery Action Plan,” 2021).


International Water Power & Dam Construction. (2020). What investigators concluded about the Spencer Dam failure in Nebraska. Retrieved March 20th 2022, from

Livingstone, I. (2019, March 18th). These images reveal the historic and horrific flooding in Nebraska and nearby states. Washington Post. Retrieved March 22nd, 2021, from

Kelly, B. (2019). Nebraska’s Flood-Damaged Highways Are An Immediate Concern. Retrieved March 20th, 2022, from

Mid-March 2019: Historical, Catastrophic Flooding Impacts Parts of Central/South Central Nebraska. (2019). Retrieved March 20th, 2022, from

State of Nebraska Disaster Recovery Action Plan. (2021). Retrieved 21 March 2022, from


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