AUBURN — Flanked by this usually quiet town's two-story brick buildings, the cars, motorcycles and 18-wheelers sit stalled at the downtown stoplight where U.S. 75 and U.S. 136 converge.

The lines of drivers who would rather not be here stretch for several blocks.

Meanwhile, in the crosswalk, two young girls in swimsuits with towels draped around their shoulders cover their ears as they walk.

It's pretty loud — the diesel engines purring when the lights are red and roaring when they’re green — and it’s far from normal.

U.S. 75 cuts through Southeast Nebraska from south of Dawson to south of Omaha but rolls through the heart of Auburn, a town with a population of 3,300. On a normal day, people can drive through Auburn in about 5 minutes, maybe 3 if they hit both of the town's traffic lights while they're green.

But when floodwaters from the Missouri River swamped Interstate 29 in March and again last week, U.S. 75 became the best available north-south route in the region.

So now that drive through Auburn is longer, and more dangerous, akin to a big city rather than a farming community.

And with only two lanes of traffic, sometimes drivers get impatient.

"The things I’ve seen since the interstate has been closed are crazy," said Maggie Kreifels, a college student living just outside Peru, a neighboring village that sits just off the highway. "I have legitimately almost gotten into an accident on numerous occasions because everyone is in such a hurry to get to where they’re going."

Kreifels travels to Omaha several times a week to attend classes, and with the extra danger of having more drivers on the highway, many area residents are electing to navigate back roads.

“I think most people that are from here realize how bad the traffic has gotten and know to either drive cautiously or avoid Highway 75 altogether,” she said. “I will drive out of my way to avoid 75. It’s gotten absolutely ridiculous.”

Kreifels isn’t being irrational. When I-29 was initially shut down in March, knocking out the primary route linking the Kansas City area with Lincoln and Omaha, the Nebraska State Patrol urged caution after a fatal collision just south of Auburn. The crash shut down the road through town for several hours.

Some frequent commuters have discovered that driving through Auburn’s residential areas can be quicker than waiting through several cycles of stoplights on the clogged highway, which only concerns residents even more.

“People really are just careless out here right now,” said Candice Bogle, a longtime resident.

Even semis make an occasional appearance in the neighborhoods, hauling trailers down streets not designed to hold them, according to Bogle, who has spent recent weeks working outside on her home’s deck in one of the town's central neighborhoods.

Nemaha County Sheriff Brent Lottman said more calls than usual have been coming in and many of his deputies have been policing traffic on top of their regular duties.

But this isn’t the first time the town has dealt with I-29 being closed.

“I personally think things were worse back in 2011, and people might be forgetting that,” he said.

The Missouri River, 10 miles to the east, experienced major flooding then, too. But he's not sure people will ever get used to it, even if it has happened before.

Once the water receded this spring, crews in Iowa worked hard for several weeks to reopen I-29 to traffic in early May. But even then, on and off ramps remained closed at several interchanges. The only bridges across the Missouri River open between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Omaha — U.S. 34 near La Platte and Nebraska 2 at Nebraska City — are once again closed.

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Aerials photos taken Sunday night and shots from traffic cameras on Monday showed floodwaters topping I-29 at points north and south of Omaha. As the Army Corps of Engineers continues to heighten releases from Gavins Point Dam in South Dakota, and with occasional downpours such as the one Monday morning, it's unknown when river levels will go down.

"It’s going to be a long summer,” Lottman said.

But it's not bad for everybody. While residents might grumble about the extra traffic, several of the town's businesses along U.S. 75 stand to benefit. Pizza Hut, located just at the end of a strip mall that greets those coming into town from the south, is the first thing hungry travelers see.

“We see a lot of unfamiliar faces, a lot of road-trippers and drivers stopping in,” said Evan Lindsey, the general manager.

People driving through often mention the congested traffic, and Lindsey makes it a point to ask where they’re coming from and learn a little bit about each new customer.

“I enjoy seeing all the different faces we don’t usually see and taking care of them,” he said. “I’ve been trying to encourage my staff to do the same.”

And business is flourishing. A usual lunch rush goes from 11:30 a.m. until 1 p.m. Now, those seeking lunch arrive earlier and sometimes the rush doesn't slow until 2 p.m.

Even if the staff is worked harder, it’s hard to complain when having more people stop in means more tips to be made.

So even if the traffic congestion is worse than usual, the crew at Pizza Hut doesn’t mind a minute of it, Lindsey said.

"I’ll take all the traffic I can get."

I-29 flooding photos

Reach the writer at 402-473-7214 or eclopton@journalstar.com.


City desk intern

2019 city desk intern at the Journal Star

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