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Nebraska's Johnny Trueblood (4) celebrates after making a three-pointer against Maryland during a Big Ten Tournament game Thursday in Chicago. Nebraska won 69-61.

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'Pretty damn serious' — Swollen rivers close roads, wash away bridges, force evacuation of thousands

The long hard winter of 2019 refused to leave peacefully, doubling down this week with a blinding blizzard in the Panhandle and unleashing walls of water that inundated towns and closed highways across the eastern half of Nebraska.

Widespread flooding forced the evacuation of thousands as swollen streams and rivers — fed by rain and rapid snowmelt — overwhelmed their banks, burying roads, breaching dams and isolating communities.

So many roads and bridges were washed out or otherwise impassable that officials were running out of barricades. The only way out of Boyd County was through South Dakota.

“There are no bridges anymore around our area,” said Roger Miller, O’Neill’s assistant fire chief. “We are pretty landlocked around here.”

Miller’s department had just returned from a rescue mission — boating through swift water to pluck a man off his porch — near what used to be the Spencer Dam on the Niobrara River. The dam failed Thursday, taking out the bridge on U.S. 281 and sweeping away at least one home. It wasn’t yet known if it was empty, he said.

Conditions were changing and deteriorating so quickly first responders couldn’t keep up. He’d heard most of bridges to the north — like the Standing Bear Bridge over the Missouri — and bridges to the south were compromised.

An overview of the Nebraska 511 website shows the dozens of highways and roads across the state closed by flooding or winter weather conditions on Thursday.

“There are so just many things going on in the state,” he said.

And the chaos is expected to continue as the damage follows the water downstream.

“This event is going to be ongoing for at least the next several days, if not the next couple of weeks,” Bryan Tuma, assistant director of the Nebraska Emergency Management Association, told members of the Legislature.

Later, at a news conference, Tuma said the water had claimed at least one Nebraskan — a farmer who tried to travel a flooded road and was swept away. He wouldn’t say where.

Multiple communities — from Cedar Rapids to Burwell, Pierce to Lynch — began evacuating Wednesday, as the waters started to rise.

In Dannebrog, volunteers continued to fill sandbags Wednesday even as a blizzard moved in. But by Thursday morning, Oak Creek had backed up and spilled over, sending a 5-foot torrent of floodwater down main street, past the Pawnee Arts Center and the Danish Baker.

Most of the town of 300 had emptied. “We’re essentially isolated here. They’re pulling people out of their houses,” said longtime resident Roger Welsch. “It’s really pretty damn serious.”

Welsch’s rural home was still dry, but he was monitoring the flooding on his police scanner. The same voices he’d heard Wednesday night sounded exhausted Thursday morning, he said.

Nearly a third of Norfolk fell under an evacuation order Thursday morning, as officials monitored the levee protecting the city of 25,000 from the Elkhorn River. Shelters were already filling, and officials were looking for more mattresses and more space.

“This is going to require neighbors helping neighbors to get through this event,” Mayor Josh Moenning said at a news conference. “It’s a very serious event, one of the most serious we’ve seen in our history.”

Brendan J. Sullivan, Omaha World-Herald 

Mary Roncka and her husband Gene Roncka, accompanied by neighbor Kevin Mandina, are evacuated as floodwaters rise Thursday near Ashland.

Water rescues played out across eastern Nebraska, many documented on social media. Photos of first responders in borrowed fan boats. Troopers using their armored SWAT vehicles. Game and Parks officers in their state boats. National Guard members in their tall-tired trucks.

Many more photos and videos showed an unfamiliar landscape. A bridge deck floating away. Boulder-sized ice chunks strewn across roads. A lake covering the busiest intersection in Columbus. Speed limit signs surrounded by acres of water. Long Pine Creek lapping at its cabins.

The threat continued to move downstream Thursday, with evacuation orders following the Platte from North Bend to the Fremont area and those living on low ground near Ashland, like the Linoma Beach area, where water spilled over U.S. 6.

Sarpy County warned residents who live near the Platte to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice, and Plattsmouth declared a water emergency, shutting down its treatment plant after it was inundated by floodwaters.

Some flooding was reported on Platte River wellfields providing drinking water for Lincoln residents but operations remained normal on Thursday, said Donna Garden of Lincoln Transportation and Utilities.

KAYLA WOLF, Journal Star 

The water had receded Thursday, but what's left behind is a home knocked from its foundation and an RV sinking into an area washed out by flooding at Emerson Estates near Inglewood.

And on the other end of Nebraska, state crews continued to try to clear hundreds of miles of highway — including long stretches of Interstate 80 — still closed by Wednesday’s blizzard. The snowfall had stopped, but the winds were still whipping it across the highways.

“They are being hampered by extremely high winds causing issues with blowing and drifting snow,” said Jeni Campana, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation.

The state began to reopen Interstate 80 on Thursday evening.

Parts of the Panhandle were buried by a foot and a half of snow, and all of that moisture will ultimately move east, toward the already swollen rivers.

“Our other problem is with the snowfall that's out in the Panhandle that's going to melt," Tuma said. “So we've got to wait for that to get flushed through the system."

Photos, videos from across the state

Photos, videos from flooding in Nebraska


Floodwaters move toward the edge of U.S. 6 northeast of Ashland on Thursday. The Platte is not expected to crest at Louisville until late Saturday night, and it is forecast to stay above flood level until late Monday or early Tuesday.

KAYLA WOLF, Journal Star 

The water had receded Thursday, but what's left behind is a home knocked from its foundation and an RV sinking into an area washed out by flooding at Emerson Estates near Inglewood.

Senate slaps down Trump's border emergency

WASHINGTON — In a stunning rebuke, a dozen defecting Republicans joined Senate Democrats on Thursday to block the national emergency that President Donald Trump declared so he could build his border wall at the Mexican border. The rejection capped a week of confrontation with the White House as both parties in Congress strained to exert their power in new ways.

The 59-41 tally, following the Senate's vote a day earlier to end U.S. involvement in the war in Yemen, promised to force Trump into the first vetoes of his presidency. Trump had warned against both actions. Moments after Thursday's vote, the president tweeted a single word of warning: "VETO!"

Two years into the Trump era, a defecting dozen Republicans, pushed along by Democrats, showed a willingness to take that political risk. Twelve GOP senators, including the party's 2012 presidential nominee, Mitt Romney of Utah, joined the dissent over the emergency declaration order that would enable the president to seize for the wall billions of dollars Congress intended elsewhere.

"The Senate's waking up a little bit to our responsibilities," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who said the chamber had become "a little lazy" as an equal branch of government. "I think the value of these last few weeks is to remind the Senate of our constitutional place."

Nebraska's representation, Sens. Ben Sasse and Deb Fischer, sided with Trump by voting not to block the president's emergency declaration.

Sasse said the reason for his vote centered around his desire to see the National Emergencies Act "narrowed considerably," adding that the Senate should "work to restore Congress' powers" through approval of legislation proposed by Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, a proposal he has co-signed.

"Today's resolution doesn't fix anything because the root problem here can't be fixed with bare-knuckled politics, but rather with a deliberate debate about the powers that Congress has been giving away and that the executive has therefore claimed," Sasse said.  

Fischer also voted in support of Trump's emergency declaration, saying she agrees the United States faces an emergency.

"The question before senators as they voted today was whether or not they agree with the president that the crisis at our southern border is a national emergency," she said. "I do."

Sasse joined with Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Ted Cruz of Texas in a last-ditch White House meeting with Trump seeking a compromise agreement Wednesday night in advance of the vote, according to The Washington Post.

Many senators said the vote was not necessarily a rejection of the president or the wall, but protections against future presidents — namely a Democrat who might want to declare an emergency on climate change, gun control or any number of other issues.

"This is a constitutional question, it's a question about the balance of power that is core to our constitution," Romney said. "This is not about the president. The president can certainly express his views as he has and individual senators can express theirs."

Thursday's vote was the first direct challenge to the 1976 National Emergencies Act, just as Wednesday's on Yemen was the first time Congress invoked the decades-old War Powers Act to try to rein in a president. Seven Republicans joined Democrats in halting U.S. backing for the Saudi Arabia-led coalition in the aftermath of the kingdom's role in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

"Today's votes cap a week of something the American people haven't seen enough of in the last two years," said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, "both parties in the United States Congress standing up to Donald Trump."

The result is a role-reversal for Republicans who have been reluctant to take on Trump, bracing against his high-profile tweets and public attacks of reprimand. But now they are facing challenges from voters — in some states where senators face stiff elections — who are expecting more from Congress.

Centrist Maine GOP Sen. Susan Collins, who's among those most vulnerable in 2020, said she's sure the president "will not be happy with my vote. But I'm a United States senator and I feel my job is to stand up for the Constitution, so let the chips fall where they may."

Trump's grip on the party, though, remains strong and the White House made it clear that Republicans resisting Trump could face political consequences. Ahead of the voting, Trump framed the issue as with-him-or-against-him on border security, a powerful argument with many.

"A vote for today's resolution by Republican Senators is a vote for Nancy Pelosi, Crime, and the Open Border Democrats!" Trump tweeted. "Don't vote with Pelosi!" he said in another, referring to the speaker of the House.

A White House official said Trump won't forget when senators who oppose him want him to attend fundraisers or provide other help. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on internal deliberations.

"I don't think anybody's sending the president a message," said Jim Risch of Idaho, the GOP chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He blamed the media for "reaching" to view every action "through the prism of the presidency, and that isn't necessarily the way it works here."

Trump brought on the challenge months ago when he all but dared Congress not to give him the $5.7 billion he was demanding to build the U.S.-Mexico wall or risk a federal government shutdown.

Congress declined and the result was the longest shutdown in U.S. history. Trump invoked the national emergency declaration last month, allowing him to try to tap some $3.6 billion for the wall by shuffling money from military projects, and that drew outrage from many lawmakers. Trump had campaigned for president promising Mexico would pay for the wall.

The Constitution gives Congress the power of the purse, and lawmakers seethed as they worried about losing money for military projects that had already been approved for bases at home and abroad. The Democratic-led House swiftly voted to terminate Trump's order.

Trump did tweet ahead of the vote that he would be willing to consider legislation to adjust the 1976 law at some later time.

That was enough of a signal for GOP Sen. Thom Tillis, who faces a potentially tough re-election in North Carolina, to flip his vote, according to a person unauthorized to discuss the private thinking and granted anonymity.

Journal Star reporter Don Walton contributed to this report.

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List of tax reform options grows with income tax cut considered

It's all on the table now, even more.

The Legislature's Revenue Committee conducted a free-wheeling discussion of tax reform during an executive session Thursday evening and when it was done sales tax increase proposals were joined by consideration of income tax reductions and major changes in state aid for local schools.

But the overriding goal continued to be property tax relief, perhaps as great as $500 million at the beginning with some senators focused on eventually achieving a billion dollars at the end.

No votes were taken, no decisions were made and Revenue Chairwoman Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn said there will be more discussions among senators and in future committee sitdown sessions.

"There were a lot of good ideas," Linehan said following the committee's second evening executive session targeted at seeking agreement on a tax reform plan.

"We're not there yet," she said.

But Linehan remains focused on her goal of sending legislation to the floor of the Legislature by mid-April.

Informal discussion on Thursday night focused on the possibility of some spending controls along with major property tax reduction which could be accompanied by a lid on future local property tax increases.

Sens. Curt Friesen of Henderson, Tom Briese of Albion and Mike Groene of North Platte gave fellow committee members extensive briefings on the details of their individual tax reform bills, all of which are being held by the committee following lengthy public hearings earlier this session.

Linehan said she would like to see if the three senators might be able to "come to agreement" on a single plan.

The possibility of both corporate and individual income tax reductions was aired Thursday night along with an array of sales tax options, including a 1-cent increase in the 5.5 percent state sales tax rate that would raise an estimated $326 million a year.

Also on the table was a proposed half-cent sales tax rate hike along with a lengthy list of current sales tax exemptions that could be repealed. Among them were exemptions applied to candy, soft drinks and bottled water.

A cigarette tax hike also remained in consideration.

One list of sales tax exemptions that could be considered for repeal totaled more than $123 million in potential new state revenue that could be devoted to property tax relief.