With the swollen Missouri River flowing rapidly just outside a South Sioux City Marina Inn meeting room, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack listened inside to flood stories from farmers living and farming along the river
The ag secretary did more listening than talking during the session, hearing stories from farmers who were concerned that their crop insurance wouldn't cover their flood-related losses, or who were worried about the cost to budget-strapped rural counties in the cleanup process once the flood waters receded.
"Stress levels are as high as the water levels," Vilsack said.
Flanked by U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., the ag secretary estimated that nearly one-half million acres of land will be impacted in Nebraska and Iowa by the flooding. He acknowledged that Mother Nature caused the situation on the river.
"There is over 300% of normal snowfall in the mountains," he said. He told farmers that he would be surprised if crop insurance companies thought differently. This is key, because crop losses caused by nature are covered by federal crop insurance.
"Maps show that there have been very few years as wet as this year" across the Missouri River basin, Vilsack said. "This has been an extraordinary spring, with unprecedented rainfall."
But he also noted that the decision-making process for river management had not been communicated to river residents. While not pointing fingers directly at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the flood control dams on the Missouri River, he did recommend better communication between the Corps of Engineers and farmers and residents living along the river as well as with other agencies, like USDA, that are effected directly by river flow management decisions.
"The Corps (of Engineers) needs to do a better job on telling us what they expect in the next several weeks and the next several months," Vilsack told the group.
He called for a "better process" for distributing data and information to the public, to help people understand why river management decisions are being made.
Farmers expressed dismay to the ag secretary over what they perceived as a priority list for river management that places more emphasis on endangered species preservation, than on human interests, including agriculture, along the Missouri.
"This reinforces the importance of communication," Vilsack said. "We need to know the plan way out ahead of time, so farmers can make decisions for their operations based on that information."
He said that livestock losses due to flooding can be handled through federal programs more quickly than crop losses. For crops, farmers may have to wait until the end of the season to quantify their losses in the field.
Missouri River flooding is only part of the picture for Nebraskans. Farmers and residents along the Platte River are also experiencing damage from unusually high water. Vilsack noted that this spring has been a tumultuous one, with an unprecedented number of tornadoes, flooding, drought and wildfires ravaging farm and ranch country across the nation.
Missouri River levels have been rising since early June when additional water releases were begun by the Corps of Engineers from dams along the river. Peak releases of 150,000 cubic feet per second were reached on June 14 from Gavins Point Dam near Yankton, SD, more than doubling the previous record releases of 70,000 cfs in 1997. Since that time, river levels have risen to points not seen on the Missouri since the flooding of 1952, before all of the dams were completed. Corps of Engineers officials have stated that the Missouri will be at flood stage at least through the end of August.
In a June 16 media advisory, the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) asked for help from farmers and river area residents in assessing flooding damage to businesses, farms and personal property around the state.
Anyone required to leave their residence, who has lost a job, has farm or business damage or lost income due to flooding should call the toll-free public hotlines at 1-855-211-2453 or 1-855-211-2454. Callers should report that they are responding to a request for flood damage information.