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Damage from storms, flooding and ice have devastated parts of Nebraska and Iowa. Photo taken March 19, 2019, in Nebraska. (Michelle Rook/Agweek)

Record flooding devastates Nebraska, ag damage could top $1 billion

VERDIGRE, Neb. — Nebraska farmers and ranchers are putting their lives back together as damage totals continue to climb after one of the worst disasters in the state's history.

Willard Ruzicka says his ranch near Verdigre looked like a war zone after the 91-year-old Spencer dam broke on the Niobrara River.

"It was storming. It was snowing. It was just plain pure hell. Basically I don't have anything left," he said.

Willard RuzickaA "bomb cyclone" — a hurricane-like winter storm — battered the region with strong winds and heavy rainfall. The resulting flooding was particularly intense because the heavy rain fell on snow that had not melted yet, Brian Barjenbruch, the science and operations officer for the Weather Service in Omaha, told the Washington Post.

Barjenbruch said the results have been incredibly damaging in parts of eastern Nebraska and western Iowa.

"It is some of the worst flooding that we've seen in many years," Barjenbruch said of those areas. "In some locations, it's the worst flooding on record on many of these river gauges."

Nebraska Ag Director Steve Wellman said his agency is estimating the total damage of the storms and flooding to the agricultural industry at $1 billion, with $400 million of that attributed to livestock losses alone. However, that number will undoubtedly continue to climb.

The flooding has killed at least four people, including Platte County farmer James Wilke, who died when a bridge collapsed as he took a tractor to save a person trapped in a car. Wilke was under the guidance of emergency crews in Columbus.

Ice caused its share of the damage in Nebraska.Through March 17, the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency reported numerous record crests had been reported on rivers in the state. But it wasn't just the floodwaters that caused damage.

"If it'd have been water, you wouldn't have seen this so much devastation, but it's the ice," Ruzicka said.

The path of destruction left only a few buildings behind at Ruzicka's ranch, including one dating back to 1871.

"A lot of my buildings, I don't know where they're at. I lost grain bins. I don't know where they're at," he said.

The water and ice swept away 500 bales and all but one bin of corn. Yet, amazingly, most of his cattle herd survived.

Ruzicka's "beautiful, beautiful, beautiful neighbors" have helped him with his cattle and the beginnings of recovery."We got a lot of them out, but I don't know how many," Ruzicka said, "Some of them we're still taking care of ourselves. They're up in the hills. A lot of the other cattle are at my neighbors. I've got beautiful, beautiful, beautiful neighbors."

Now neighbors he doesn't even know are providing feed through a hay drive organized by Curt Zimmer and Zimmer's daughter Hannah. Bales are being dropped at the Verdigre auction barn and delivered by local truckers.

Water has yet to fully recede in some places."She put something on Facebook and it just blew up and we've had a lot of people call us from all over the country," Zimmer said.

But more donations will be needed.

"I'm thinking we're going to need about 70 semi-loads of hay to get all these guys through until grass time, until we can get em out to grass," Zimmer said.

Ruzicka will need feed again later this year as his cropland also was flooded. Now just a field of ice remains.

"A lot of our fields, you're not going to be able to farm any of it," Ruzicka said.

Agriculture-related damage from the flood likely will top $1 billion in Nebraska.And even though the herd was saved, it won't be easy to keep them healthy.

"Yes we saved a lot of the cows," he said. "But it's not only that. It's when they go through this water like that, then they get sick. So it's not a good thing."

Neighbors are helping with the cleanup, giving this fifth-generation rancher the strength to go on.

"My grandson would be the sixth generation, and I'm not leaving," he said. "I'm going to try to come back."

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