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OMAHA — Gov. Pete Ricketts and other state officials witnessed a helicopter rescue mission, saw wiped-out bridges, islands of stranded cattle and towns engulfed by water during a flyover of flooded areas Friday.

The expanse of the flooding made detecting the main channels of the Elkhorn and Platte rivers difficult in some areas, he said.

“This may be the most widespread flooding devastation we’ve had in our state in the last half-century,” Ricketts said.

Flooding has prompted evacuations in at least 20 communities and 23 counties, according to Nebraska Emergency Management Agency Assistant Director Bryan Tuma.

As of Friday afternoon, one person, 50-year-old Columbus-area farmer James Wilke, had been confirmed dead and three people remain missing because of the flooding.

More than 40 people had been rescued as of Friday, including three people hoisted onto a National Guard helicopter from a rooftop near Arlington as state officials on their aerial tour looked on.

A team of Lincoln and Omaha fire and rescue crews deployed to Columbus for the second consecutive day Friday to help rescue people who had become stranded.

The 16-member team of Urban Search and Rescue Nebraska Task Force 1 returned to the area following missions by a smaller contingent there Thursday, Team Leader Dan Ripley said Friday.

The federally funded task force routinely responds to rescue people endangered by hurricane-caused flooding, and this mission is a rare, but particularly meaningful deployment for these crews, Ripley said.

“It’s especially special where we can go help our communities, our friends,” the Lincoln fire captain said.

Arriving in the Columbus area at about 12:30 p.m. Thursday, the team quickly encountered conditions that made their first mission too dangerous, he said.

The winds gusted to 60 mph, and four- to five-foot tall waves in the floodwaters rivaled those crashing on Hawaiian beaches, he said.

That first mission was turned over to helicopter crews, and the team then embarked on another mission where conditions still made the rescue of a man and his three dogs arduous, Ripley said.

Three National Guard helicopters ran missions in the Columbus, Genoa and Arlington areas Thursday, Major Gen. Daryl Bohac said.

Several firefighters were treated for hypothermia after two air boats carrying them capsized during a rescue attempt a few miles east of Fremont on Thursday night. Five firefighters and two air boat operators were flown by National Guard helicopters to Methodist Fremont Health for treatment, according to the Dodge County Sheriff's Office.

Bohac said he expected rescue efforts to continue into the weekend. He likened the difficult and dangerous missions to the ones the National Guard saw when it aided Hurricane Harvey rescue efforts in Texas in 2017.

The last time there was flooding of this magnitude in Nebraska, in 2011, the guard’s flooding operations involved deploying soldiers and airmen to monitor conditions from the top of Missouri River levees from near Sioux City, Iowa, south to Falls City, Bohac said.

“We did not run one rescue operation in that flood,” Bohac said.

The Nebraska Department of Transportation says at least four bridges on the state highway system have washed out or been damaged and is advising motorists to not travel in north-central and northeast Nebraska until floodwaters recede.

The highway system bridges known to be either destroyed or damaged are:

* Nebraska 12 at Niobrara.

* Nebraska 22 south of Genoa.

* U.S. 281 south of Spencer.

* Nebraska 11 south of Butte.

U.S. 77 into Fremont is closed, among the many road closings across the state. A voluntary evacuation was issued for the southwest portion of the city, the Dodge County Sheriff's Office said. 

Evacuations were ordered in Valley, where meteorologists at the National Weather Service office located between the Platte and Elkhorn rivers picked up and moved to a backup location in Hastings.

In Beatrice, the rising Big Blue River closed U.S. 136 and U.S. 77 through town.

Meanwhile, the Lancaster Event Center said Friday it is opening a shelter for livestock affected by flooding.

The center in northeast Lincoln said in a news release that it coordinated with Lancaster County Emergency Management, the State Emergency Management Agency and the Nebraska Department of Agriculture to open its grounds as a shelter at least through the end of the month.

Those looking to house livestock at the Event Center should call the main office at 402-441-6545 and ask for Chas Skillett or Amy Dickerson, or send an email to adickerson@LancasterEventCenter.org or cskillett@LancasterEventCenter.org.

Across the state, water levels were dropping on the upper Elkhorn and Platte rivers but had not peaked along the southern basin, said Col. John Hudson of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. 

Just north of where the Platte and Missouri rivers meet, Offutt Air Force Base officials evacuated the base lake recreation area and also relocated some critical missions because of rising floodwaters. The base near Bellevue said in a Tweet that it was bolstering its water defenses and that the next 72-96 hours would be critical.

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Concerns also heightened for the Missouri River south of its junction with the Platte, Hudson said, and the Iowa Department of Transportation closed Interstate 29 Friday afternoon from U.S. 34 (just east of Plattsmouth) to the Missouri border.

Nebraska Public Power District’s Cooper Nuclear Station in Brownville declared a “Notification of Unusual Event” at 5:46 a.m. Friday when the Missouri River reached 42.5 feet at the plant, a news release said.

NPPD workers worked Friday to add sandbags to the levee that protects the plant.

Spokesman Mark Becker said if the river hits the level of 45 feet projected by the National Weather Service this weekend, the plant would have to be shut down. Projections predict the river could reach four feet above the top of Brownville’s levee.

During the 2011 flooding, Cooper sandbagged and barricaded the doorways but kept functioning. 

Becker says the district will get power through its own facilities or through a power-sharing network if Cooper's power generation must halt.

There is no threat to plant employees or to the public, NPPD said. 

Upstream on the Missouri, Army Corps officials were in a difficult balancing act in managing releases from Gavins Point Dam. But officials expect the confluence of rainfall across a wide area, the rapid snowmelt and the surge from a dam break near Niobrara to lead to historic flooding across Southeast Nebraska, Hudson said.

“We’re expecting numerous levees between here and Kansas City to overtop over the next two to three days, and we’re still a good week-plus from seeing relief on the Missouri,” Hudson said.

Residents along the Missouri should recall how 2011 flooding affected their communities as they assess whether to evacuate, said Ricketts, who added that he's confident that flood damage will exceed the threshold for a federal disaster declaration.

Meanwhile, local officials in flooded areas have begun finding problems with their water systems and were continuing to assess whether their water remained drinkable, Tuma said.

State officials stressed that Nebraskans looking to aid flood relief should consider donating to the American Red Cross or helping with clean-up efforts.

“They’re doing an awesome job now,” Bohac said. “When it comes to recovery, they’re all going to need some help.”

Photos, video from flooding and storms in Nebraska

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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Business editor/reporter

Matt Olberding is a Lincoln native and University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate who has been covering business for the Journal Star since 2005.

Reporter

Riley Johnson reports on local government in Lincoln.

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