Lessons Learned from a Bomb Cyclone Flood in Eastern Nebraska
In March of 2019, winter storm Ulmer hit the midwestern part of the United States. The storm created
blizzard conditions in Colorado and northern states and high winds and heavy rains in other parts of the
Midwest. One of the towns in the path of the winter storm was North Bend, Nebraska, which is located in
the eastern part of the state and has a population of 1,213 residents.
The storm reached eastern Nebraska on March 13th. Barometric pressure readings reached all-time lows for
the state. While heavy snow created dangerous conditions in Colorado and western Nebraska, high winds
and rain hit eastern Nebraska. At the time, parts of eastern Nebraska were covered with 2 feet of snow.
Rain from the storm and water from the melting snow flowed into the Platte River. The frozen,
snow-covered ground prevented the moisture from being absorbed into the soil, producing ice jams, levee
breaches, and flooding along the riverbank. North Bend was one of the towns affected by the river's
The state of Nebraska issued state of emergency declarations in 81 of 93 counties and 5 tribal areas.
When it was apparent that there was a potential for a major flood in parts of Nebraska, Dodge County
Emergency Management officials reached out to the North Bend City Council and asked them to plan
accordingly. The emergency management team for the city included the city council, the volunteer fire
department, and various other community members. Due to his training in active shooter drills, the
superintendent of the public school system also played a key role on the emergency management team.
Schools closed as conditions worsened, and sand-bagging operations began while floodwaters rose.
Residents in the small town were given a mandatory evacuation order.
Residents were allowed a half hour to gather personal items and evacuate. Since there was no centralized
emergency management alert system, text messaging and word of mouth became the medium by which residents
Most of the residents who were able to comply with the evacuation order did so by moving to the local
high school, where officials had gathered to manage the emergency. However, shortly after residents
began arriving, it became apparent that the floodwater would soon surround the high school. Emergency
managers then instructed residents to head north to higher ground in the town of Snyder, which has a
population of 327 residents.
The residents of Snyder were unaware that evacuated residents from North Bend were coming, but in a
fortunate coincidence, firefighters from Snyder Volunteer Fire and Rescue were at the local ballroom
preparing for a Friday night fish fry. Firefighters mobilized emergency plans by establishing a
temporary shelter in the Snyder ballroom, and through word-of-mouth messaging, Snyder residents donated
cots and blankets for evacuees.
Elderly residents and long-term care facility residents faced additional challenges with the evacuation
order. Many long-term care residents were in wheelchairs, and many others required oxygen and/or special
equipment. Many older adults needed assistance from others to leave their homes. With the help of
volunteer firefighters, emergency medical technicians (EMTs), and volunteers manning airboats, the older
adults and people with disabilities were moved to other safe locations.
Additionally, many families who lived in higher elevation areas that were free from floodwaters took in
evacuees. In many cases, they provided food and shelter for them for several days.
As the floodwaters receded, residents were eager to return to their homes to survey damages and
ascertain if anything could be recovered. Scores of volunteers arrived from around Nebraska as well as
from other states. The priority was to clean out homes, assess the damage, and help neighbors.
The need for personal protective equipment (PPE) became a concern as residents encountered toxic water,
including spills from garages, sewage, and agricultural chemicals, while cleaning out their homes.
Additionally, residents needed education on the use and importance of PPE.
It quickly became apparent that the local disposal facility would not be adequate to accommodate all
unsalvageable items. There was also a need for trucks to haul damaged items for disposal. Farmers
volunteered to assist with tractors.
The challenges were not limited to property, crop, and infrastructure damage. Physical and emotional
stressors to victims were also present. The local medical clinic had to close because it had also been
flooded. Residents needing a higher level of care were forced to drive to a neighboring community to
access medical care, which required traveling on a road that was blocked one way by floodwaters or on
soft treacherous gravel roads.
Ultimately, through a combination of community spirit and outside support, the town was able to recover
from this disaster. It is likely, though, that the residual effects of the storm will remain for years,
if not decades, to come.
The sense of community and the willingness to help one's neighbor was important to the recovery from
this flood. As a smaller town, residents knew one another, shared an interest in the common good, and
supported one another throughout the crisis.
Keeping emergency and recovery management leaders and volunteers under one roof provided continuity in
support and services. It also allowed residents to have easy access to the services they needed.
Teamwork and effective and efficient decision-making by community leaders were critical to the
successful recovery from this flood. In some cases, individuals who had no formal leadership role in
emergency management assumed responsibility for activities associated with disaster management.
Deferred Maintenance on Infrastructure
While improvements in infrastructure in the area had been researched and discussed, work had not been
done to ensure that bridges and levees would hold in a major flooding situation. Many of those
structures buckled under the stress of the floodwaters.
No Centralized Alert System
Although some residents believed that the town whistle was blown, the city did not have a centralized
alert system. Further, residents outside the town perimeter may not have heard the whistle. The schools
sent out a message via the school's text messaging system, but this would have been received only by
those who were signed up to receive these texts. Word of mouth and the local newspaper editor's Facebook
posts became the primary medium for communication. Isolated individuals or those not on the school's
messaging system were at a disadvantage for notification. Once the recovery began, volunteers went door
to door telling people about available resources.
Management of Volunteers
A “second storm” of well-intentioned volunteers came from neighboring states after drone
images of the flood went viral, but vast local resources were required to ensure the effective
deployment of their services while maintaining their health and safety.
Keeping Residents and Volunteers Safe
The city sewer system was overwhelmed by the flooding, and raw sewage flowed into homes and streets.
Fresh water was scarce. Health officials were concerned about keeping residents and volunteers safe from
tetanus spores from the soil, exposure to bird and rodent droppings, mold fungi, and more.
Lack of Availability of Tetanus Vaccinations
While tetanus vaccinations were available in other communities, there was not enough vaccine available
locally. Residents were hesitant to leave their home recovery efforts, stating that recovery was more
important than getting a tetanus shot. Local officials sought additional resources for the vaccine, but
access and supply were limited.
Emotional Responses to Disaster
Community health needs ranged from emotional (including sadness, shock, and anger) to physical (such as
backaches, headaches, and sleep problems). There was no infrastructure in place to assist residents in
managing their physical and emotional needs. However, the Red Cross set up a support clinic in the high
school to assist individuals with emotional needs.
Unwillingness to Use PPE
While most outside volunteers were willing to use PPE, residents were less likely to want to use it and
needed to be persuaded to wear it. Emergency management personnel were required to educate and
creatively persuade others to use PPE.
Lack of Access to Water Testing Kits
While the city water issue was addressed, there was a shortage of test kits for local farm wells. The
emergency management team members tried to get test kits from local public health departments. However,
kits were limited due to the widespread rural flooding. North Bend emergency management team members
tapped into metropolitan area water testing laboratories to gain access to kits to meet the need.
Centralize Support Services
North Bend is small. The emergency command center and disaster recovery center were housed in the high
school. The donation distribution center and other services were also housed at the high school.
Residents had a one-stop-shop for assistance. This centralization also provided streamlined
communication for assistance and recovery as volunteers, emergency management, and disaster recovery
personnel had easy access to one another for consultations.
In addition to having an accurate record of the incident and aftermath, the Federal Emergency Management
Agency (FEMA) requires significant documentation. Systems should be deployed ahead of a disaster to
ensure accurate and efficient documentation.
The use of drones to provide aerial imagery and real-time information about the extent of damage to
their property was very helpful to flood victims. Residents reported that information helped alleviate
the stress associated with uncertainty even though the information was often “bad news.”
North Bend exemplified the importance of providing opportunities for people to gather, share their
stories, and discuss what happened for disaster recovery. Residents gathered in various settings to talk
and share experiences, including the disaster service areas set up at the high school. The ability to
process the trauma of a disaster is critical to emotional recovery. Communities can provide systems and
structures for residents and volunteers to share their experiences.
Centralized Messaging System
Communities should create a centralized messaging system that includes phone calls to landlines and text
messages to mobile devices to share emergency communications with residents about new, potential, and
current disasters and emergencies. The school's text messaging system and the local newspaper's Facebook
page provided critical information about the flood to members of those resources. However, not all
residents were members, and those resources were not intended to issue emergency communications.
Plan for the Next Disaster
While no community member wants to think about potential upcoming disasters, it is wise to prepare for
them. Creating potential scenarios and emergency action plans will assist with quick and effective
responses should another disaster happen.
Linda Emanuel, RN, Community Health Director
AgriSafe and local resident of North Bend, Nebraska
Opinions expressed are those of the interviewee(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Rural
Health Information Hub.