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Conditions ripe for 'historic' flooding, Weather Service says

A confluence of factors has led the National Weather Service to warn of the possibility of "major to potentially historic" river flooding this week.

Much of eastern Nebraska is expected to get anywhere from 1 to 2¼ inches of rain through Thursday, which certainly isn't a historic amount, especially in March.

But, combine that precipitation with frozen ground, saturated soil, a still hefty-but-melting snowpack and thick ice on many rivers, and you've got a recipe "to produce a well-above- normal flood risk for a storm of this magnitude," the National Weather Service said in a situation report issued Tuesday.

Both the city and Lancaster County are preparing for potential flooding and monitoring low areas where flooding is most likely to occur. And officials warn drivers to pay attention to barricades and not drive through floodwater. 

Six inches is all it takes to sweep away a person and two feet of water can sweep away a vehicle, said Lancaster County Sheriff's Capt. Josh Clark. 

High water prompted county officials to close West Olive Creek Road from Southwest 42nd to Southwest 58th streets on Tuesday afternoon.

The city has staff and contractors on standby. The county has purchased extra rock to put on gravel roads and has been removing snow from ditches using backhoes to allow for movement of water. 

The city is also monitoring the wastewater treatment facilities in Lincoln and water production facilities in Ashland.

With wells on both sides of the Platte River and on an island of the river, the city believes it can handle "whatever the river does," said Donna Garden, assistant director for the Lincoln Transportation and Utilities Department.

Black Hills Energy spokeswoman Brandy Johnson asks people to call the company to shut off gas if they must evacuate a home because of potential flooding.  

Most of eastern Nebraska is in a flood watch through Thursday night, and the Weather Service said several rivers in the area are expected to reach major flood stage over the next several days, including the Missouri, Platte, Elkhorn and Blue.

Flood warnings are already posted along dozens of rivers and streams, some of which could see record or near-record water levels.

For example, the Platte River near Louisville is expected to crest at 12.2 feet Thursday, which would be just below the record of 12.4 feet dating to 1960.

In some areas, flooding won't come until later. The Missouri River at Brownville is expected to reach its crest of 44.3 feet Sunday. The record level there is 44.8 feet in 2011. Missouri River levels are expected to stay above flood stage for more than a week.

J. Renee Crisler, the Nemaha County emergency management director, said the Brownville area floods often and so normal precautions are being taken, such as notifying residents and making sure there aren't any people camping in parks near the river.

Shell Creek, near Columbus, is forecast to blow past its record flood level of 22.8 feet, with a crest of 24.7 feet predicted for late Wednesday.

The Lincoln area could see some minor flooding from Salt Creek. The creek is expected to crest at 19.2 feet at Roca and 20.8 feet at North 27th Street, both of which are just above the threshold for minor flooding.

Farther north, moderate flooding is forecast along the creek at both Greenwood and Ashland.

Salt Creek flows south to north before connecting to the Platte River at Mahoney State Park.

In Lincoln, rainfall could be heavy Wednesday morning, with a slight risk of severe weather — hail and high winds — possible if the sun should break out for a time Wednesday afternoon.

Thursday, colder air will arrive, and rain could turn to snow in some areas. Lincoln is expected to receive little if any snow, although high winds could be a problem, with gusts of 40-50 mph possible.

Just west of Lincoln, an inch or two of snow is possible, which, when combined with high winds, could make travel difficult. A winter storm watch extends as far east as York and Hebron.

Much farther west, the Weather Service has issued blizzard warnings for the Nebraska Panhandle and other parts of western Nebraska.

The Nebraska Department of Transportation announced Wednesday morning it will close westbound Interstate 80 at Ogallala at 11 a.m. CT due to the predicted blizzard. Travel on secondary roads west of Ogallala is not advised.

Snow totals ranging up to 2 feet are expected by Thursday evening. The Weather Service says winds gusting to 55 mph or higher will produce whiteout conditions, making travel very difficult to impossible Wednesday and Thursday.

"If and when it snows it will be a blizzard," Jerilyn Billings Wright, a Weather Service meteorologist in Hastings, said during a conference call Tuesday afternoon.

Devastating Nebraska floods through history

PhotoFiles: Devastating Nebraska floods through history

Much of world bans Boeing jet involved in Ethiopia crash

HEJERE, Ethiopia — Much of the world, including the entire European Union, grounded the Boeing jetliner involved in the Ethiopian Airlines crash or banned it from their airspace, leaving the United States on Tuesday as one of the few remaining operators of the plane involved in two deadly accidents in just five months.

The European Aviation Safety Agency took steps to keep the Boeing 737 Max 8 out of the air, joining Asian and Middle Eastern governments and carriers that also gave in to safety concerns in the aftermath of Sunday's crash, which killed all 157 people on board.

Referring to the Lion Air crash in Indonesia that killed 189 people last year, European regulators said that "similar causes may have contributed to both events."

British regulators indicated possible trouble with a reportedly damaged flight data recorder, saying they based their decision on the fact that they did not get "sufficient information" from the recorder.

Turkish Airlines, Oman Air, Norwegian Air Shuttle and South Korean airline Eastar Jet were among the latest carriers to halt use of the Boeing model. Ireland, the Netherlands, Malaysia, Australia and Singapore suspended all flights into or out of their cities.

A Turkish Airlines official said two Britain-bound planes returned to Istanbul after British airspace was closed to the aircraft. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

U.S.-based Boeing has said it has no reason to pull the popular aircraft from the skies. It does not intend to issue new recommendations about the aircraft to customers. Its technical team joined American, Israeli, Kenyan and other aviation experts in the investigation led by Ethiopian authorities.

The Federal Aviation Administration said it expects Boeing will soon complete improvements to an automated anti-stall system suspected of contributing to the deadly crash of another new Boeing 737 Max 8 in October.

Some U.S. airlines expressed support for the Boeing model, and American Airlines and Southwest continued flying them. A vice president for American, the world's biggest carrier, which has 24 Max 8s, said they had "full confidence in the aircraft."

Safety experts cautioned against drawing too many comparisons too soon with the Lion Air crash in October. But others in the U.S. began pressing for action.

The Association of Professional Flight Attendants, which represents more than 26,000 flight attendants at American Airlines, called on CEO Doug Parker to "strongly consider grounding these planes until an investigation can be performed."

Consumer Reports called on airlines and the FAA to ground the jets until a thorough safety investigation is complete.

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump lamented the complexity of modern airplanes Tuesday, appearing to speculate on the cause of the disasters before aviation experts from the United States and elsewhere complete their investigations.

Trump tweeted that "airplanes are becoming far too complex to fly." He did not specifically mention the crashes.

"Split second decisions are needed, and the complexity creates danger," Trump tweeted. "All of this for great cost yet very little gain. I don't know about you, but I don't want Albert Einstein to be my pilot. I want great flying professionals that are allowed to easily and quickly take control of a plane!"

The Ethiopian Airlines plane crashed six minutes after taking off for Nairobi, killing people from 35 countries.

A pilot who saw the crash site minutes after the disaster told the AP that the plane appeared to have "slid directly into the ground." Capt. Solomon Gizaw was among the first people dispatched to find the plane. The wreckage was discovered by Ethiopia's air force.

"There was nothing to see," he said. "It looked like the earth had swallowed the aircraft. ... We were surprised!" He said it explained why rescue officials quickly sent bulldozers to begin digging out large pieces of debris.

Ethiopian Airlines, widely seen as Africa's best-managed airline, grounded its remaining four 737 Max 8s until further notice. The carrier had been using five of the planes and was awaiting delivery of 25 more.

As night fell, the airline offered no new updates on the investigation. 

Some insights into the disaster and its cause could take months, aviation experts said.

"The conclusions that will come out of its probe will be beneficial to the rest of the world," Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said Tuesday at a news conference with visiting French President Emmanuel Macron. "These types of accidents break everyone's heart. I hope we will learn from this crash."

editor's pick
Clean gutters, free downspouts: How to keep the coming water away

You should check your basement when you’re done reading this.

And later, check it again.

You might find a surprise.

Because, conditions are conspiring against your basement. Take a few days of steady rain, mix it with the melt from record snow and ice, and meteorologists are predicting the possibility of historic flooding in the region.

And the Leak Detective is predicting the possibility of unwanted water in your house. Even if it typically stays dry.

“It is actually somewhat of an extreme weather condition,” said Gus Ponstingl. “We have so much snow and ice, and then to have these rain storms.”

The Leak Detective is an architect by training who once owned a civil engineering company, though he’s not an engineer. For the past five years, he’s used his expertise in draining and grading as a consultant, inspecting homes for potential problems and troubleshooting confirmed leaks.

But there are a few steps any homeowner can take to try to keep this week’s water from breaching their basement.

* Free your downspouts. Make sure they’re not buried in snow or frozen shut toward the end. If they’re clogged, water will back up in the downspout and eventually pour into the foundation. “And the closer the water falls at the foundation, the more likely it is to get in,” he said.

Use gutter extensions if necessary, but try to get the water 4 to 6 feet out from the house, and carve a channel in the snow so it has a place to go.

* Clear your gutters. Sounds obvious, but look for clogs up there, too. If the water is overtopping the gutter, it’s falling straight toward your foundation, and can find its way into your basement.

* On the roof. Look for iced-up areas that could be trapping water — or ice dams where two slopes of a roof meet — and try to get rid of them. You can chip them free, or melt them away with a steady spray from a garden hose.

* Your yard. Try to drain any pools and puddles that are trapped by ice dams. Chip a valley through the ice until the water starts to flow.

* Around the house. This is a little more advanced, but Ponstingl is a believer in proper grading around the foundation. His rule of thumb: If you pack a 4-foot-wide pile of dirt around your house, it should only rise 4 inches up to the foundation. Too much dirt, too high, can become soaked with water and put pressure on the foundation.

The Leak Detective suggests checking your basement a few times a day. And if you do find water, don’t worry: It could be years before another similar combination of rain, snow, ice and frozen ground occurs.

“Get through this and I think we’re going to be OK,” he said. “Don’t panic; it’s probably not going to happen again.”

Celebs, coaches charged in college bribery scheme

BOSTON — Fifty people, including Hollywood stars Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, were charged Tuesday in a scheme in which wealthy parents allegedly bribed college coaches and other insiders to get their children into some of the nation's most selective schools.

Federal authorities called it the biggest college admissions scam ever prosecuted by the U.S. Justice Department, with the parents accused of paying an estimated $25 million in bribes.

At least nine athletic coaches and 33 parents, many of them prominent in law, finance, fashion, the food and beverage industry and other fields, were charged. Dozens, including Huffman, the Emmy-winning star of ABC's "Desperate Housewives," were arrested by midday.

"These parents are a catalog of wealth and privilege," U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said in announcing the results of a fraud and conspiracy investigation code-named Operation Varsity Blues.

The coaches worked at such schools as Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, Wake Forest, the University of Texas, the University of Southern California and the University of California at Los Angeles. A former Yale soccer coach pleaded guilty and helped build the case against others.

Two more of those charged — Stanford's sailing coach and the college-admissions consultant at the very center of the scheme — pleaded guilty Tuesday in Boston. Others appeared in court and were released on bail.

No students were charged, with authorities saying that in many cases the teenagers were unaware of what was going on. Several of the colleges involved made no mention of taking any action against the students.

The scandal is certain to inflame longstanding complaints that children of the wealthy and well-connected have the inside track in college admissions — sometimes through big, timely donations from their parents — and that privilege begets privilege.

College consultants were not exactly shocked by the allegations.

"This story is the proof that there will always be a market for parents who have the resources and are desperate to get their kid one more success," said Mark Sklarow, CEO of the Independent Educational Consultants Association. "This was shopping for name-brand product and being willing to spend whatever it took."

The central figure in the scheme was identified as admissions consultant William "Rick" Singer, founder of the Edge College & Career Network of Newport Beach, California. He pleaded guilty, as did Stanford's John Vandemoer.

Singer's lawyer, Donald Heller, said his client intends to cooperate fully with prosecutors and is "remorseful and contrite and wants to move on with his life."

Prosecutors said that parents paid Singer big money from 2011 through last month to bribe coaches and administrators to falsely make their children look like star athletes to boost their chances of getting accepted. The consultant also hired ringers to take college entrance exams for students, and paid off insiders at testing centers to correct students' answers.

Some parents spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and some as much as $6.5 million to guarantee their children's admission, officials said.

"For every student admitted through fraud, an honest and genuinely talented student was rejected," Lelling said.

Several defendants, including Huffman, were charged with conspiracy to commit fraud, punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

The investigation began when authorities received a tip about the scheme from someone they were interviewing in a separate case, Lelling said. He did not elaborate.

Authorities said coaches in such sports as soccer, sailing, tennis, water polo and volleyball took payoffs to put students on lists of recruited athletes, regardless of their ability or experience. Once they were accepted, many of these students didn't play the sports in which they supposedly excelled.

The applicants' athletic credentials were falsified with the help of staged photographs of them playing sports, or doctored photos in which their faces were pasted onto the bodies of genuine athletes, authorities said.

Prosecutors said parents were also instructed to claim their children had learning disabilities so that they could take the ACT or SAT by themselves and get extra time. That made it easier to pull off the tampering, prosecutors said.

A number of colleges moved quickly to fire or suspend the coaches and distance themselves from the scandal, portraying themselves as victims. Stanford fired the sailing coach, and USC dropped of its water polo coach and an athletic administrator. UCLA suspended its soccer coach, and Wake Forest did the same with its volleyball coach.

Loughlin, who was charged along with her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, appeared in the ABC sitcom "Full House" in the 1980s and '90s. Huffman was nominated for an Oscar for playing a transgender woman in the 2005 movie "Transamerica." She also starred in the TV show "Sports Night" and appeared in such films as "Reversal of Fortune," ''Magnolia" and "The Spanish Prisoner."

Court documents said Huffman paid $15,000 that she disguised as a charitable donation so that her daughter could take part in the entrance-exam cheating scam.