or Niobrara High School student Adam DeKay, March’s flood has kept him from living at home for months.
His family lives west of Niobrara, on the other side of two major bridges that span Nebraska Highway 12. The family relies on the bridges and highway as a lifeline to reach Niobrara for work, school and every other facet of life.
That access was cut in mid-March, affecting every aspect of everyday life.
A bomb cyclone inundated the region with rainfall, and the Spencer Dam breached — unleashing ice jams and an 11-foot wall of water. The flood damaged the Niobrara River bridge and destroyed the Mormon Canal bridge, forcing the closure of Highway 12 west of Niobrara.
The DeKay family, like so many others, faced life-changing decisions. They decided Adam, who was an NHS junior, would remain in town for the remainder of the school year. In addition, his mother was a teacher and faced a similar situation.
They weren’t alone, as 40 students and staff were cut off from Niobrara.
"To get to Niobrara, you had to go around by Pischelville … which was the only bridge that wasn’t out, but it took you another hour to reach town," Adam said. "I just lived with my grandma in Niobrara for the rest of the school year and this summer."
The long detour for flood-stranded residents — which turned a five-minute drive into a two-hour round trip — has now ended, bringing joy to residents and visitors.
On Tuesday, Adam and his fellow Niobrara High School senior classmates attended the Nebraska Department of Transportation (NDOT) formal celebration of the Highway 12 re-opening. The Niobrara River bridge has been repaired, while a temporary bridge allows one-way traffic over the Mormon Canal and will be replaced with a permanent structure next summer.
During Tuesday’s program, Niobrara Mayor Jody Stark was amazed at the flood’s lingering impact five months later.
"As I look back to March when the flood occurred, we could never have imagined all the destruction that the flood would cause for this area, this community," he said. "Niobrara is a community that relies very heavily on recreation and tourism, including Niobrara State Park. It’s a very important part of this community."
The flood’s damage took a heavy toll on the surrounding farm operations, Stark said. At one point, hay producers from around the nation responded with massive tonnage of hay for local farmers and ranchers. The flood also affected cropland, depositing sand and other debris as well as high water.
"We mustn’t forget the agricultural side, the farmers and ranchers who faced the impact of significant difficulties this spring — the calving operations and the roads and getting to the community," Stark said. "There were a lot of difficult times for a lot of people in the area."
Reliable transportation also provide a key link for businesses, travelers, truckers, tourists and recreationists, Stark said.
"This is a big day for Niobrara and the surrounding area," he said. "We’re bringing the community back together and will continue the rebuilding process and prepare for the future."
For Niobrara Superintendent Margaret Sandoz, the bridge and road openings relieved a great deal of stress. The school district had resorted to alternative bus routes last spring, creating nearly two-hour rides that normally took an hour.
Now, she didn’t know until the last minute whether the two bridges and Highway 12 would be opened in time for last Monday’s opening day of school.
"We have greatly anticipated the opening of the bridge for about two weeks. We heard from people, ‘The bridge is open! The bridge is open!’" she told the Press & Dakotan. "We would come back out and we still saw the ‘road closed’ signs. But we knew it was just a matter of time, and we were all praying for that day."
The word came late Friday night that Highway 12 was open for travel. The prayers had been answered, and just in time.
"There’s just a sense of relief," she said. "It has created a lot of emotions. Those who lived on the west side of the river, their lives have not been easy the last few months."
The new structure has served as a bridge in more ways than one, Sandoz said.
"This bridge also bridges our community back together," she said. "It means wherever you live — east, west, north or south — we can come together. We are working together to make a strong community and to make life as good as we can."
Tuesday’s other speakers included NDOT director Kyle Schneweis; NDOT District 3 Engineer Kevin Domogalla; Joe Werning with the Federal Highway Administration; Jeff Stockel with Alfred Benesch & Company; and Nick Gaebel with Hawkins Construction.
Stark sees the regained highway and bridges as opening up a great deal of new opportunities.
"Now that we’re open, this will bring a lot more traffic through town. It’s not Labor Day yet, so we have part of the tourist season left," he told the Press & Dakotan. "Niobrara State Park is open, and we’re coming into the fall with the big deer hunting season that doesn’t start until October or November."
This year’s flooding, while creating the worst of situations, has brought out the best in Niobrarans, Stark said.
"There is almost a great sense of accomplishment. It’s a bit overwhelming seeing where we’ve been at," the mayor said. "There is a tremendous resiliency and effort. Everybody came together. You need to be on the same page in order to be successful. It’s very crucial in order to get things done."
And now, the community is ready to welcome visitors with open arms, Sandoz said.
"Once again, all roads lead to Niobrara," she said.
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