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Mars in Nebraska: After the Forgotten Flood of 2011

“Let me run two fears by you and let me know if they’re legitimate,” says Ryan over the din at Jake’s in Omaha. The bar was packed on the day after Christmas with people we either recognized from high school, or who were Conor Oberst. Ryan...

by Ben Richmond
Jan 5 2012, 6:30pm

"Let me run two fears by you and let me know if they're legitimate," says Ryan over the din at Jake's in Omaha. The bar was packed on the day after Christmas with people we either recognized from high school, or who were Conor Oberst.

Ryan continued, "So my brother drove me up north, up where all that flooding happened in the spring. We just drove around the 'Road Closed' sign, and it's all just…. sand. So we're driving around and I'm worried about two things: 1. What if we just, drive into quicksand…" we all shook our heads, because that seems stupid, "and 2. what if this sand is all toxic?"

It didn't get a lot of national attention but this spring the Missouri River was going nuts. Heavy rainfall in Montana and snowmelt across the northern plains caused the river to swell and flood for 2,300 miles, across seven states. The Army Corps of Engineers estimates that floodwaters have caused $630 million in damage to just the levees, dams and channels built to control the river. So far there's only speculation on how much damage has been done to private homes and farmland along it.

Ryan’s second fear – toxicity, not quicksand – seemed legitimate. In addition to overrunning fields covered in Round-Up, at one point the river had actually swamped the Fort Calhoun nuclear power plant 19 miles north of Omaha.

Fort Calhoun, swamped (via)

Flooding would not be good news at any nuclear plant – remember what happened in Japan? – but Fort Calhoun was an especially undesirable place for a natural disaster.

In October 2010, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission found that Fort Calhoun had "inadequate strategies to prevent the plant from flooding." At 1:25 in the morning on June 26, 2011, the NRC was proved right when the dam protecting the plant gave way and the river rushed in around the auxiliary and containment buildings. A spokesman for the Omaha Public Power District concisely assessed the dam for the Omaha World Herald by saying, "it did not work; it did not keep the water out."

But the plant managed to stave off disaster. In response to the aggressive federal inspectors, OPPD's buildings and spent fuel casks were protected from the floodwater, and generators and back-up generators were ready to power the plant. Consider it America's own twist on Fukushima – the nuclear disaster that almost happened.

If it strikes you as odd that a power plant would need generators, then you can deduce the other stroke of good fortune before the flood: the plant had already been powered down for two months for routine maintenance. According to the World Herald, the reactor, which normally would've been operating at around 560 degrees, was instead at a cool 80 degrees. This especially played to everyone's advantage when, according to the NRC, "inadequate design or improper installation of electrical components" caused a fire that knocked out the pumps for the cooling water.

And all this was three weeks before the flood. Plant officials said the pumps were operating within 90 minutes, and in that amount of time the water temperature had only risen 2 degrees, meaning it would've take 88 hours without the pumps for the water to boil away. These were their words of reassurance.

So maybe Ryan did have a point: Fort Calhoun's record is far from sterling. The plant was slated to reopen in January, but the NRC pushed back the start-up date indefinitely, and has moved the plant into its second-highest level of scrutiny. Sometimes, Ron Paul, federal oversight can be quite comforting.

With this confidence, we begged Ryan to take us to the New American Desert the next day.

He flaked out, citing a dentist appointment, but Carl, Ethan and I still went. Ryan's directions took us past Hummel Park, which Carl confirmed was one of Omaha's most haunted parks. The unseasonably warm December had laid the fields around us bare, in a thousand different shades of brown.

The road wound north, until it flattened into what was once—and now was again—the Missouri River plain. A Ford truck in front of us turned to go to the now-appropriately named "Surfside Café" ("Dress Decent or Stay Out"). A water line became visible on the trees that bordered the road. We turned east, and followed the road onto the surface of Tattoine.

Where once there was a cornfield, now there were dunes. The beach spread across the breadbasket.

With my assurances that "it's cool, we're press," Ethan navigated his dad's Corolla around the Road Closed sign, and we headed toward what once was a family farm. Sand was piled past the baseboard, having broken down the door, smashed the windows, and ruined the house. Somewhere in the house, a smoke detector chirped to its departed owners that its battery was dying.

Perhaps the national media ignored this monster flood because the water rose slowly, and its source was heavy snowfall miles and miles away. Essentially it was a flood without storms, which was visible around the ruined house. Magnetic darts were still fixed on their dartboard, in a bedroom of rotted drywall. If anyone wants a perfect roof, every shingle was in place. Liquor was still in the bottle, the bottle still on the shelf. But the after-effects are like a blizzard that will never melt.

"Beep!" insisted the smoke detector.

The road lead to a wildlife refuge, where the only evidence of wildlife were deer and raccoon tracks, but the only wildlife we spotted were two ducks; they made a fluttering whistling sound as they flew far overhead. Bone-white pieces of small, shattered crabs peeked out of the sand periodically.

We walked through the ghost forest and Carl talked about making boats to send down the little tributary that we were approaching. "What was this area like before?" I asked.

"I—," Carl started and stopped. "I could show you pictures. It was green."

The dock was pulled from the sidewalk and pitched into the creek, which lay tepid, green and still. Maybe Ryan was right about toxicity.

The sun was almost completely gone so we worked our way back to the car, joking about we could shoot a pretty convincing adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's The Road here. Nothing was growing.

Flooding the banks and moving around used to be a natural season for the Missouri River, which is why the river plain is so flat and fertile. But as Omaha the city replaced the Omaha tribe, it became a practical necessity to contain the river and keep it in place.

With enough warning, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers relied on the now-broken system of levees and reservoirs to divert the river and to keep this from happening. An independent panel appointed by the Corps characterized this spring’s events in Missouri as a "500 year flood event," which explains why it broke all the records dating back to when they started tracking flood water back in the mid-nineteenth century.

As we dropped him off before heading back to our respective family dinners, Carl called out, "Thanks for the trip to Mars."

"I hope his neighbors heard that," Ethan said.

-Words by Ben Richmond. Images courtesy Ben Richmond and Ethan Heil.
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