Nebraska’s washed-out bridges, peeling highways and crumpled roads all led somewhere. So did Iowa’s, before the floods.
Those roads carried people to work and corn to market. They carried pivot parts to Valmont, packages to porches and birthday cards to moms.
The scope of the infrastructure challenge facing Nebraska is daunting. Some 65 counties had declared emergencies by Tuesday, most based on flooding. The flooded areas stretch from the Missouri River in the east to Boyd and Keya Paha Counties in north-central Nebraska, the state says.
Highways, bridges, roads, culverts and levees have been damaged, said Bryan Tuma, assistant director of the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency. At the flooding’s peak, more than 1,500 miles of highway were closed, including three significant roads into Omaha that remain inaccessible today.
West Dodge Road west of 204th Street looks like a pancake poured too thin, warped and uneven, with pieces peeling off.
Whole panels of West Center Road on a state bridge west of 229th Street are out.
And inspectors are racing to see how much of the base of the West Q Road bridge over the Elkhorn washed away.
Preliminary estimates in Nebraska show that more than 200 miles of state highway could require reconstruction — a full repair and rebuild. That’s on top of 11 bridges and three approaches that the state already knows require replacement or significant work, said Kyle Schneweis, Nebraska’s transportation director.
Iowa is still waiting for the floodwaters to pull back south of Council Bluffs to assess the damage, said Mitch Dillavou, Iowa’s chief transportation engineer. Flooded Interstate 680 could need another rebuild just seven years after the 2011 floods. So could sections of Interstate 29 and parts of state highways.
The costs of road and bridge repairs could reach into the hundreds of millions in Nebraska and at least into the tens of millions in Iowa.
The Nebraska Emergency Management Agency had already tallied more than $553 million in public damage on Tuesday. The agency had not yet received complete reports from the counties, nor had it outlined the damage by type.
The massive task of assessing, repairing and replacing hundreds of miles of damaged roads and bridges will take months, state and local officials say. Even when roads are repaired, there may be fewer lanes for a while as more permanent repairs are made, slowing traffic and lengthening commute times.
State roads officials can’t yet quantify the costs of commuters’ new circuitous routes in and out of places like Columbus, Fremont or west Omaha. They already estimate that getting around the damage could cost Nebraska’s farmers and ranchers an extra $1 million a day in transportation costs.
“We want to make sure roads and bridges are safe before anybody tries to cross them,” said Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, who spoke with U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao on Wednesday about the state’s needs.
Officials warned that even after the water clears, roads and bridges that look good can have serious damage below.
Water can wash out, weaken or destroy the sub-grade below pavement, leading to air bubbles in the ground, collapses and more, experts say.
Bridges can wash out beneath their pilings and piers, leaving them structurally suspect, so each must be checked.
That’s why the assessment stage over the next few weeks is vital, whether by drone, in person or some combination of the two.
The state has nine bridge inspectors for hundreds of bridges. Douglas County has two for more than 50. Rural counties have even smaller staffs, officials say. County road engineers reached this week say they don’t yet know how many of their bridges are gone or how much road work might be needed.
Tom McDonald, who manages road maintenance for Douglas County, said he’s worried that there may be more work than construction crews available to do it.
But the people who will design and rebuild Nebraska’s roads and bridges know the importance of those connections. They say they feel a sense of urgency.
That’s why Schneweis was on the phone Monday with private contractors who work with his department, getting them ready to make emergency repairs.
Once state and local governments finish assessing the damage, they will start prioritizing how and when to rebuild what. Then they’ll hire help.
The rebuilds won’t go at the typical deliberate pace of road construction, said Nick Gaebel, vice president of Hawkins Construction of Omaha. Contracts for emergency repairs to critical infrastructure typically cut the design process down and speed up the time to turning dirt, he said.
In the typical process, the state puts out its plans, gives contractors 21 days to bid, takes the lowest bidder and companies start months of design work. Local design firm HDR Inc. expects an expedited process, said Matt Tondl, a senior vice president who oversees such work in Nebraska and Iowa.
“In this case,” Schneweis said, “we might team contractor A with consultant B and say, ‘Here’s the amount we have for the project, get going.’ ”
One of the biggest challenges for contractors taking on a job like repairing West Dodge Road is getting what builders need there. The logistics of getting materials like concrete and steel and the right kind of fill dirt to where it needs to be will require coordination, Gaebel said.
One example: The state already knows asphalt is in short supply, so it’s working with contractors for ready-mix concrete.
Omaha-area contractors expect to work on both sides of the Missouri River and across Nebraska, said Tom Janssen, a spokesman for Kiewit Corp. Many companies say they are already reaching out to prepare crews for the likelihood of answering Nebraska’s and Iowa’s calls.
Gaebel described the response from contractors in Nebraska and Iowa as “incredible.” They want to get products moving again, he said.
“Just like Midwestern values and Nebraska values,” he said. “When times get tough, we come together.”
The biggest question the state must answer is which places need temporary repairs and portable bridges because of traffic or economic importance. For instance, the state spoke with agricultural leaders about the importance of repairing U.S. 275 between Wisner and Beemer because of the road’s importance to carrying cattle to market.
Roads officials in Nebraska and Iowa also say they will consider ways to make some flood-damaged infrastructure more resistant to flooding. That may include raising the heights of roads, moving them or finding ways to slow water flows when flooding happens, officials say.
Nebraska, for its part, says it plans to be strategic about its investments. It may work with the Army Corps of Engineers to move a Highway 12 bridge near Niobrara that’s had flooding problems. Iowa says it may do some work to pool water and slow damage to I-680.
There is some hope for commuters and farmers, based on how quickly Iowa bounced back after losing a section of I-680 to the 2011 floods. Iowa assessed the damage in September, found a contractor by late that month, got a full rebuild, and reopened Nov. 2, Dillavou said.
But this is not 2011.
“Going forward, people will have to exercise some patience in getting this infrastructure rebuilt,” said Tuma, the state emergency manager. “We’ve never had an event of this magnitude.”