Elmer Armstrong remembers the flood of June 1984.
It happened 35 years ago.
As part of Scribner’s volunteer fire department, Armstrong was among firefighters helping residents. Firefighters could see the Pebble Creek rising and began going house to house notifying people on the west end of town to evacuate.
But even before the flooding, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Scribner’s city council had begun working on the Pebble Creek levee.
Eventually, the entities would work until there were two levees, which together basically encircle the town — except for U.S. 275, where flood gates and sandbags can be placed for protection.
These dikes protected residents within city limits from recent flooding.
In fact, Armstrong said the levees have protected Scribner from flooding eight times since the town took possession of them in 1989 and 1995, respectively.
Armstrong, now Scribner’s city administrator, recalls the days before the flood of 1984.
Three nights earlier, Scribner’s fire department was called to pull vehicles out of the water at the U.S. 275-91 junction. Rain had caused Mud Creek, which runs west of the junction, to overflow its banks. Firefighters were pulling three to four cars out each night.
On the third night, the firefighters went back into Scribner and helped pump out water that had infiltrated the sewer system, which couldn’t handle it all.
Firefighters then saw Pebble Creek rising and began notifying people west of U.S. 275 to evacuate.
“Before we could get one block notified, the water was already there, coming in,” he said. “Everything went pretty well, except for the west side of town, until floodwaters from Pebble Creek finally broke through the Chicago & North Western Railroad tracks, and then it started coming up into town.”
Volunteers evacuated people via airboat and water reached more than 3 feet deep in places south of the old Chicago and North Western Railroad tracks. Firefighters helped pump a couple feet of water from residents’ basements to keep it from affecting wiring.
After the flood, the corps and council worked to get the Pebble Creek levee constructed.
Then the corps and the Federal Emergency Management Agency conducted another flood assessment.
“The town was moved into the 100-year floodplain of the Elkhorn River,” he said.
The corps began work on the Elkhorn River Flood Protection Project. With completion of this project, the town basically is encircled by levees.
“Which means, in times of high water, we can become an island,” he said.
But the town has flood protection.
The city fared well during recent flooding.
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“In town, we had some minor street flooding, because we had culverts that were plugged, so we had to pump out (water) over to the highway ditch, but that was the only thing in town that we had to do. We pumped just overnight,” Armstrong said.
Under direction of the civil defense assistant director, Scribner’s firefighters helped the city put in flood gates. They put sandbags outside of those gates on U.S. 275.
“We lost power for about six or seven hours,” Armstrong added. “We had an insulator break on the transmission line that comes into town on the Scribner-Herman Road. Nobody could get to it with the floodwaters. It took Burt County Power 6½ hours to get here from Tekamah to assist in getting power put back in.”
The fire department evacuated approximately 12 people from the area outside of Scribner’s city limits.
Armstrong began looking through records and saw three times between 1989 and 1995 that water was up against the town’s flood gates.
At least three more flash flooding events occurred between 1996 and 2013. Water was up against the flood gates in 2017 and in 2019.
“We’re probably looking at eight times when we’ve had to put flood gates in on the highway,” he said.
That’s how many times dikes have prevented flooding in the city of Scribner.
Dikes around the city look like tall, long, grassy hills.
Armstrong said work is taking place to remove debris from the dikes so seed can be sown into flood-affected places and grass will again grow to protect the integrity of the levees.
“We’ve had some minor washouts we’ve worked on,” he said. A culvert and a new headwall had to be replaced.
Armstrong commended Utility Superintendent Jack Cordes, who has been directing and doing much of the work on culvert replacement.
“There’s a lot of pride taken by the city workers here,” Armstrong said. “It takes a lot of work to keep everything in shape.”
That work includes mowing grass on the levees, backfilling holes made by animals, cutting out saplings that grow into levees, which can weaken them.
It’s important to keep scrub trees out of the levees.
That’s because a tree carried by floodwaters could knock out a scrub tree growing in the levee. If that happens, the scrub tree’s root ball could be dislodged, affecting the levee’s integrity.
With the new, U.S. 275 four-lane bypass going around town in the next two to three years, the highway will become a levee in a lot of places. It basically will take the place of most of the Pebble Creek levee system, Armstrong said.
Just east of Scribner, residents can still see effects of recent flooding at a blue building called the town border station.
There, flooding from the Elkhorn River brought sand that can be seen around the building. Brown lines on the building show how high the waters rose. Floodwaters also carried corn stalks from no-till fields, which became embedded in a fence around the structure.
The 1984 flood remains the worst Armstrong can remember. And without the levees, he believes flooding would have occurred in the city of Scribner this year.