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The evacuation was voluntary Thursday night, but law enforcement and fire and rescue teams were there to offer rides to higher ground to those who asked.

Even Lancaster County’s mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle joined the mission, transporting a few handfuls of residents who decided the time was right to evacuate from homes surrounded by water.

City officials issued the voluntary evacuation order Thursday after nearly 7 inches of rain from storms Wednesday night caused unprecedented flooding along Salt Creek.

Evacuations Thursday evening were focused mainly in the South Bottoms, where the water covered mailboxes lining the streets in some places. A lot of people, however, elected to stay in their homes.

“They’re going to rough it out,” said Karen England of her boyfriend, their three dogs, and their neighbor, who all live near First and B streets. “But I’ve had two hips replaced and I have congestive heart failure, and I can’t get anywhere in a hurry. I’d rather be safe.”

England stepped off the big, black vehicle with a small, black suitcase, and stepped into her son’s truck. She planned to stay with him and his family for the night.

By 8 p.m., the sheriff's department vehicle had taken 18 people away from the rising water in the neighborhood near the A Street viaduct. From there, evacuees were picked up by family members or moved to the F Street Recreation Center.

Sheriff's Deputy Christina Worster said emergency services, including teams from Lincoln Fire and Rescue and the Lincoln Police Department, would be available as long as people need them, through the night and morning. Residents who left were asked not to return to their homes until it is safe, Worster said.

But when it will be safe was still the question Thursday night.

The next 24 hours will be critical, according to the city.

Fueled by tributaries, Salt Creek was running at historically high levels Thursday afternoon, and if the creek tops the levee, a mandatory evacuation may be necessary.

“I don’t think the water has ever gone over the levee since the levee was built in the 1960s,” said Mike Mascoe of the Lower Platte South Natural Resources District. “It still hasn’t gone over, but it’s extremely close.”

The flooding threat was evident in startling photos from Thursday morning showing water covering the field at Haymarket Park. And Salt Creek kept climbing, its floodwaters swallowing parts of the parking lot at Lincoln Southwest High School that were clear when the morning bell sounded.

Roads near the A Street viaduct were passable and dry when employees got to work at 5 a.m., said Brett Richert, of Stephens and Smith Construction, 1542 S. First St.

The flooding started about 6, he said.

“It rose feet, really quickly,” Richert said.

Richert said he’s worked at the construction company for 30 years and has never seen flooding like this, not even in October when nearly 9 inches hit Lincoln in 20 hours.

The north-flowing Salt Creek was moving more water through Lincoln on Thursday than any other day in 49 years of measurements, said Tim Boyle of the U.S. Geological Survey. A gauge at 27th Street was recording a flow of 33,400 cubic feet per second -- the equivalent of 33,400 basketballs moving through the creek every second.

The voluntary evacuation area is bordered by Eighth Street to Folsom Street, and Cornhusker Highway to Van Dorn. It includes the North and South Bottoms neighborhoods, the People’s City Mission and much of the Haymarket.

Officials said their main concern was warning those in residential areas.

The city opened shelters at the F Street Rec Center, 1225 F St., and the Belmont Recreation Center, 1234 Judson. Those needing help with transportation can call 402-441-5530.

One of the first businesses to evacuate was Lincoln Industries, where water crept up from an overflowing slough to the west and the bulging creek to the east.

Executives evacuated nearly 400 employees at about 10:30, leaving a skeleton crew of about 30 scrambling to protect the building at 600 W. E St., said spokeswoman Lori Saale.

Workers had sandbagged every entrance to the plant by noon, and crews continued to bolster their defenses.

Pastor Tom Barber said the People’s City Mission free health clinic might get flooded, but the shelter for homeless people will not close.

“We’re going to take all comers,” he said late Thursday. “If people need a place to stay, we’ll take them.”

The floodwater closed West O Street near the Mission, and with 84th Street shut down due to water over the road and access to U.S. 77 limited, traffic congestion was a major issue throughout the day.

BNSF Railway reported a washout-related derailment 5 miles west of Lincoln, which closed the track to Hastings, and one track of a double-track pair on the line to Ravenna was underwater.

The east edge of Hobson Yards -- closest to the bulging Salt Creek -- was flooded, and the railroad was moving equipment to places that needed track work, said spokesman Andy Williams.

Some took advantage of the flooding to have a play day.

Derrick Rexroth, 20, spent part of Thursday zipping around First Street on a Yamaha Wave Runner outside his dad’s auto body shop.

“It’s crazy. I’ve never seen anything like it, and I’ve been doing this almost 30 years,” Steve Rexroth said. “This is the 50-year-flood stuff, I’m sure.”

In southwest Lincoln, Bill Behmer kayaked from his house near Old Cheney Road through water 3 feet deep in some places.

He said he measured 8 inches of rain in his backyard between Wednesday night and Thursday morning.

In many ways it was the storm of the century, or at least that's how Emma George saw it.

“I’ve lived here for 74 years, and I never thought I’d have to go through this,” said George, 94, who lives near Second and D. “Today, I feel like 100.”

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7254 or psalter@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSPeterSalter.

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Peter Salter is a reporter.

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