From their offices in Lincoln early Thursday, hydrologists with the U.S. Geological Survey were monitoring the final few moments of a stream gauge more than 200 miles away, on the Niobrara River.
It was hinting at something catastrophic.
“We were watching it from here, and it looked like something incredible was happening that we couldn’t believe,” said Jason Lambrecht. “And suddenly, everything went dark.”
The gauge had been ripped away by the wall of water released when the 90-year-old Spencer Dam failed under the pressure of the river, swollen with rain and rapid snowmelt and broken ice. But its last readings allowed Lambrecht to measure the size of the surge.
Earlier, the Niobrara had been running at 5 or 6 feet of gauge height. After it broke through the dam, it measured nearly 17.5 feet. It wasn’t a gradual increase, either…
And in its wake, three Nebraska counties would learn how that much moving water can become immediately destructive and potentially deadly. How it can cause instant pain and long-term suffering. How it can harm not only those in its path, but those living miles away.
First, the wave swept away a section of U.S. 281, a nearby riverside saloon and at least one home, possibly occupied. And it continued downstream, barreling toward the town of Niobrara — and its mouth at the Missouri River — about 40 miles away.
Knox County: ‘It’s crazy’
The service station owners thought they were ready for the coming water.
They’d taken the tire machine and other equipment away. They brought the important paperwork home. They put their ’68 Camaro up on the lift. They moved the rest of what they could to higher ground, filling the rafters with inventory.
And the couple had a huge inventory. Vic’s Service has anchored the west edge of Niobrara for 25 years, and had enough hydraulic fittings and plumbing pieces to serve as a kind of farmer’s supply store, said Ruth Janak, who co-owns the station with her husband, Victor.
They checked on their business Wednesday, and found it already swamped with 4 feet of water, her desk upturned, pop machines on their sides. A mess, but nothing they couldn’t handle.
“We thought, when the water recedes, we’ll be able to get in and clean all that up,” she said.
They returned Thursday, and found most of it missing.
“Our main building, the one we did our business at, it’s gone. The gas pumps are gone. We lost the propane tank. So many tools are gone,” Janak said Friday. “Where’s all that stuff at? It’s crazy.”
Later, she would find a jug of hydraulic fluid — and someone else’s pontoon boat — on what remained of the town’s golf course. But their main building, and much of what it contained, had likely tumbled downstream.
Theirs wasn’t the only missing building. The wall of water had brutalized Niobrara’s west side, a low-lying commercial district, and the part of town closest to the river.
Jody Stark, the chair of the village board, listed the other casualties. Several buildings from a hay business? Gone. A state Department of Transportation garage? Gone. A Knox County road shop? Gone. The Mormon Bridge on Nebraska 12? Stark has video of the deck floating away. The Country Cafe? Still standing, but it had been nearly swallowed by water and ice, with maybe a foot of the roof visible at one point.
“A lot of buildings washed away,” he said. “They were pretty much swept right down the river and they’re in the Missouri somewhere.”
The good news? Almost all of the 300 or so residents of Niobrara live on higher ground, and weren’t directly hurt by the floodwaters…
Still, his town was struggling. The flooding compromised the town’s two wells, leaving its residents without a water supply, and the fire department was going door-to-door, filling containers. Getting in and out of town was also difficult; by Friday, the Standing Bear Bridge to South Dakota had reopened, and there was one passable gravel road south of town. Nebraska 14, the main route south out of Niobrara, was so strewn with ice it was only open for emergency travel.
The damage was unprecedented, Stark said, and worse than they had originally expected. But that was before they’d heard the Spencer Dam had failed and even more water was headed their way…
The Spencer Dam was a flow-through hydroelectric dam, with garage-type doors that let water through, and Becker said it wasn’t known whether the doors had been open or closed at the time. They disappeared downstream, he said.
Its breach triggered immediate and long-term problems. It swept away a Holt County house just downstream, and authorities were still searching for its owner.
“On March 14th at around 5 in the morning the dam on the niobrara river south of Spencer NE was overtaken by flooding and ice jams. 2 days prior to this there was significant snow melting. 1 day prior there was all day rain measuring 1-1.5 inches. The ground was still frozen from recent below normal temperatures. All that water broke loose ice chunks the size of cars and trucks. The dam was no match for this extreme force. The dam and the dike were both destroyed. The water then washed out Hwy 281 and flooding many communities downstream.” — Birkel Dirtwork
And the force of the flow severed the supply of water to the north, in Boyd County. Many of its 2,000 residents relied on the pipeline from Holt County that was buried beneath the river. Now that it’s gone, they don’t have the water they need for drinking, for livestock, for flushing.
They received a truckload of bottled water Friday, enough to last maybe a day, said Doug Fox, Boyd County’s emergency management coordinator. They need more…
And Boyd County was struggling to stay connected with the rest of the state. The failure of Spencer Dam took out a pair of routes over the Niobrara River, and the only ways out of Boyd County were north into South Dakota or west into Keya Paha County, Fox said.