Catastrophic losses in wake of blizzard, flooding in Midwest

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, Friday, March 22, 2019

LINCOLN, Neb. — The losses are heartbreaking and the devastation staggering from the violent March blizzard meteorologists described as a “hurricane over the Plains” on March 13 and 14. It brought rain, then heavy snow, high winds and low temperatures from Colorado to Wyoming and western South Dakota, wreaking havoc with flooding throughout the state of Nebraska and the region.

Superstorm Ulmer arrived on the heels of warmer temperatures that had begun melting significant snow and ice pack from the series of snow storms and low temperatures that had preceded it. Part of the problem was there were few periodic melts of this accumulation over the course of the winter.

The result of the storm and the snowmelt has been historic flooding of catastrophic proportions throughout central and eastern Nebraska and western Iowa, as well as portions of Missouri, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

While those to the west were digging cattle out of 7- to 10- foot drifts of heavy wet snow, those to the east were trying to find ways to get feed to cattle stranded by floodwaters or to give them a route to safety as some of the ranchers themselves were forced to evacuate the high waters.

In fact, Becky Long Chaney, who grew up on a Maryland dairy farm and now lives on a cattle ranch near Elwood, Nebraska with her husband and their twin daughters, reports that they are okay, but around them is much devastation.

“The more I hear, the more shocked and saddened I become,” she said telling of a ranch 30 minutes from them losing 45 calves and another trying to cut fence to save a group, but seeing the wall of water take over 40 pairs away.

Ice chunks several feet thick and as large as cars and trucks were propelled by the heavy rain and snowmelt-fed waters — smashing through homes and barns, breeching and damaging dams and levees. Damage to dams resulted in unexpected levels and areas of flooding. Becky notes that five-generation farms in the region have seen property and livelihoods destroyed with little notice.

Like in the Storm Atlas tragedy in South Dakota in 2013, it is difficult for producers to talk of these losses. The guilt they feel, though not deserving of such guilt, is that they could not save them all. Some reports indicate losses of one-quarter to one-half of affected herds. Some lost nearly all. No official numbers of cattle losses are yet released, but the financial cost of all livestock losses was estimated at $400 million in Nebraska, alone, according to the Governor’s office.

“It takes a great deal of faith to be involved in agriculture. It takes a great deal of faith to deal with Mother Nature,” said sixth generation farmer and radio host Trent Loos, talking about the blow his home state of Nebraska was dealt this past week.

The Nebraska Farm Bureau pegs agricultural economic losses approaching $1 billion, with their estimate of livestock losses at $500 million and crop losses at $440 million. Crop loss estimates include the losses to stored grain as well as fields that will likely be left unplanted this spring due to the severity of the flood damage and debris. The state’s emergency management officials say public infrastructure impact in damaged and washed-away bridges and roads will exceed $200 million, and that does not include bridges that must be inspected due to being still intact but perhaps compromised by the force of the flood.

Trent’s March 19 Loos Tales added heartfelt perspective to these losses, as he remembered the farmer many are calling a hero. James Wilke of Columbus, Nebraska was one of four to lose their lives in the flood. James was called home this week when a bridge gave way as he was rescuing a stranded motorist with his tractor during the brunt of the historic flooding.

It had already been a brutal winter in the Midwest and West before Ulmer came to town, and now the warmer temperatures and more moisture this week are aggravating the situations.

Three weeks earlier, Washington state dairy farms reported losses of over 2000 cattle from a late winter storm. In the Upper Midwest, the unending snowfall and frigid temperatures led to over 100 dairy barn roofs caving-in, with structural damage, cattle losses, and milk dumping reported in the two weeks ahead of Ulmer.

Last week, as Ulmer developed its cyclone pattern in the Southwest, straight-line winds above 70 mph spawned tornadoes south of Roswell, New Mexico producing severe damage to some dairy operations. One dairy reported having to euthanize 150 dairy cows.

In eastern New Mexico, Ulmer’s straight-line winds over 80 mph blew a train from a bridge into a ravine, according to commercial cattle manager and livestock analyst Corbitt Wall. A former USDA market reporter in Lancaster County, Pa. before returning to his roots now in the Texas Panhandle, Wall said Monday that the locomotive made it across the bridge but the dozen railcars in tow did not.

On the situation in Nebraska, Wall said it is a “real bad deal” and will impact the cattle industry there for months and years to come.

The term “bombogenesis” is used by meteorologists to describe the phenomenon of Ulmer’s hurricane-like rotation that had intensified as the warm and cold air masses collided over land, with dropping pressures that produced what they call a “bomb cyclone” over the Plains — bringing two inches of driving rain and sleet that turned to 12 to 24 inches of blizzard snow.

But it was the unrelenting hurricane-force winds of up to 70, even 80 mph, that created the 7- to 10-foot drifts, trapping cattle and other livestock. Those trying to tend cattle during the blizzard report becoming disoriented and unable to do much more than wait it out and rely on any preparations they were able to make in the short time beforehand.

As the winds began to let up after 24 to 48 hours, ranchers got out to find cows, calves, pairs and other livestock, alive and dead, beneath the pristine white prairie.

What’s worse is the timing. Most cow/calf operations in the region are in midst of calving season.

As for the flooding, reports from TriState Livestock News indicate that the rising water pushed large icebergs into dams in north central and northeast Nebraska that were then breached with water overtopping the ice to create the widespread flooding moving south into unprepared areas with damage to infrastructure making evacuations difficult.

In fact, the town of Fremont, Nebraska, just west of Omaha, was completely cut off by destruction of bridges and roads, and it was several days before evacuations could happen or convoys could be routed in with supplies.

In a press release, Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts declared a state of emergency to deal with both the blizzard in the west and the flooding throughout the state. On Monday (March 18), he said FEMA would be in the state to work on expediting federal disaster declaration paperwork, and the White House reported that Vice President Pence would visit Tuesday (March 19) to survey the damage.

“We are going to be far over what is needed to declare a federal disaster,” said Gov. Ricketts in a statement. “We’ve got bridges out and levies broken, lots of roads, utilities, everything.”

While scenes of the blizzard and flooding have circulated widely via social media, some even making it to various news stations, most of the devastation in America’s heartland is just beginning to reach mainstream media six days after the storm.

In a Brownfield Ag report Monday, Pete McClymont with Nebraska Cattlemen said the flooding has hit the state’s livestock industry hard, noting “horrific stories where some cow/calf pairs have gotten caught up in the rising flood waters and been washed away.”

Columbus, Nebraska is one of the hard hit areas. This photo was taken a week after the flooding during cleanup. Low lying areas, including many grazing areas and farm fields will have standing water for quite some time. Photo by Sherry Bunting

Social media posts, photos and accounts from those affected depict towns, farm buildings, grain elevators and other structures under water, and as the waters begin to recede, the primary issues are getting feed out to the surviving stranded cattle, locating feed resources, and digging surviving cattle out of debilitating mud.

In the west where wind and snow were the issue, producers told of having barns and calf shelters buried. Photos and videos showed people using backhoes or shoveling teams from the top of the heavy wet snow to get down to the shelter openings. Finding live cattle was the reason to gratefully rejoice, while wary of what future impact the ordeal may have on the calf crop.

“That moment when your calf shelter is buried deep. You shovel and shovel and can hear some calves bawling, their mothers are going crazy. You finally get down to the opening and everything in there looks back at you and they are all alive. Made this ol’ girl bawl like a baby, thank you Jesus,” posted Jodi O’Bryan of Belvidere, South Dakota on the farm’s facebook page.

One rancher reported loading newborns into trailers, trucks, anything, to weather out the storm. Another told of canoeing calves across a river with the cows in tow.

But where the flooding has struck, there was little ability to prepare. These areas received little precipitation from Ulmer, but the snow melt and ice jams moving along the various rivers from the west brought disaster.

The Nebraska Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) map shows how widespread the flooding is. Agency photo

The magnitude is best realized this way: When a tragedy hits, neighbors help neighbors and communities rescue each other, but when three quarters of a state are hit and 31 communities are under water, with bridges gone, roads wiped out and utilities affected, rescue and recovery are challenging.

President Trump approved a Major Emergency Declaration for Nebraska and Iowa, where a majority of counties are affected by floods and other natural disaster associated with Storm Ulmer and the excess snowmelt from the series of storms before Ulmer. This has helped mobilize government disaster aid and assistance more rapidly. However, there are so many needs on the ground that these programs can’t possibly cover. (In fact, as I drove through portions of Nebraska impacted by the flood, I passed countless trucks hauling large equipment and large dump trailers going both ways in-and-out of flood-stricken areas as the cleanup and restoration is beyond comprehension.)

  • Both the Nebraska and Iowa Department of Agriculture are assisting farmers and ranchers, as well as extension and USDA Farm Service and Natural Resource Agencies. A list of disaster relief resources is also available online. This website includes links to the USDA FSA programs including the Livestock Indemnity Program and information from the state university extension.


Operation Prairie Hay Drop was underway this week by the Nebraska Air National Guard. And the outpouring of offers and help is coming in from around the nation.
Last Sunday (March 17), Chuck Fleeman of Columbus, Nebraska thanked those from Presho, South Dakota who donated and hauled almost 200 bales to the Columbus drop-off center, and the youth who came out to unload. This Sunday (March 24), a trucking firm in Utah is working with a group of producers in Kentucky to bring hundreds of bales of hay to the areas of Nebraska and Iowa in need. And on all the days in between, convoys of hay have come into the region from midwestern states all around them, as well as from Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania to the east.

— The Nebraska Department of Agriculture is asking those in need of hay, feedstuffs, fencing materials and other assistance and those who are willing and able to donate these items to call the department at 1.800.831.0550. They’ve also set up a Hay and Forage Hotline at 402.471.4876.

The Nebraska Farm Bureau has created an Agriculture Disaster Exchange (ADE), which is an online clearinghouse to connect producers in need with those offering help, hay, hauling, equipment and other supplies at

Photo of hay headed to Nebraska, from the Nebraska Governor’s facebook page. See more about hay drop off locations and other ways to help below.

HAY Drop Off Locations

Initial hay drop-off locations were set up at the Columbus Sales Pavilion and the southwest end of the Lancaster Event Center fairgrounds’ exhibit hall parking lot east of Lincoln, off I-80 exit 409 on North 84th street. (If bringing hay to the Lincoln drop-off location, please call or text Amy at 402.429.1950 about type and quantity of hay coming, round or small square; grass or alfalfa. She says they have secured a trucking offer and will determine best locations that can be reached from Lincoln as waters recede.)

The Lancaster Event Center fairgrounds in Lincoln is also temporarily stabling animals. Go here and scroll to the second page to find out how to help with livestock shelter needs.

** More hay drop points were set up since this Farmshine report ** The Nebraska Department of Agriculture has a list of additional Hay Drop Off Points, here. Also a Veterinary Supply Drop-Off Point has been set up at Tyson Dinslage Clinic, West Point, Nebraska for Veterinary supplies only, call 402-450-8007 for details.

In Iowa, Hay Net and Grazing Net is helping to connect farmers who either need hay or have hay available, or need grazing land or have grazing land available.

Here are some other important ways people can help:

The Nebraska Farm Bureau Foundation’s Disaster Relief Fund is accepting donations to provide emergency aid to Nebraska farmers, ranchers, and rural communities affected by recent storms and flooding. They state that 100% of the donations will be distributed to those affected by the disasters. There is a donation tab at or checks can be made to Nebraska Farm Bureau Foundation and mailed to: Nebraska Farm Bureau Foundation Attn: Disaster Relief Fund, P.O. Box 80299, Lincoln, NE 68501-0299.

Nebraska Cattlemen Association established the Nebraska Cattlemen Disaster Relief Fund, receiving donations at 4611 Cattle Drive, Lincoln, NE 68521. Donation forms are available online at

The Salvation Army, Mennonite Disaster Service and Samaritan’s Purse are already in action in northeast Nebraska and western Iowa, along with the American Red Cross. Churches, Community Foundations and Chambers of Commerce have set up disaster relief funds as well.

At the Nebraska state government’s website, information is available for donating specifically needed personal items and cleanup supplies at

Ag Community Relief has continued its efforts and are compiling feed, fencing supplies and other needs in a truck-run that left Michigan Thursday evening and arrived here Friday. They have a facebook page @agcommunityrelief and website

— Another facebook page keeps a running record of efforts to participate in from auctions and fundraisers to work crew and supply convoys. That page is Nebraska Strong Disaster Relief (@NEStrongforPilger)

— The facebook posts that led to hashtags #NebraskaStrong have become T-shirt sales through online stores. Examples include this one donating proceeds to Salvation Army and Nebraska Farm Bureau Disaster Fund

Look for future updates here and in Farmshine.