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Rural Towns Across The Midwest Struggle To Overcome Damage From Flooding

KCUR 89.3
Georgia Courtney is staying with friends since flooding in Lynch, Nebraska, swamped her home. She's worried about her job at the grocery store, and the future of the village.

The catastrophic flooding in Missouri, Nebraska, Iowa and Kansas last month caused more than $12 billion in damage, by one estimate.  But much more is at stake as the flood waters recede.

Small, rural towns are damaged … and dying.

Even communities with a lot going for them have taken a beating. Lynch, Nebraska, for instance, a remote village near the South Dakota line, with only about 200 residents.

“Small a town as we are, we’re really proud of all the things we have,” says Sandy Fisher, owner of the town’s bowling alley. There’s a theater, pool, grocery store, two bars, a bank and a small hospital.

But Georgia Courtney, who works at Lynch Hometown Market, is worried about Lynch's future. The little grocery store is for sale and she may lose her job. And since the last month’s flood, life here is harder.

“I’m homeless right now, but I’m staying with friends,” says Courtney. “There’s a lot of us displaced, that are trying to find a place to go, a place to live whatever, but there’s not much housing in this town.”

Credit Nico Leone / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
The bowling alley in Lynch, Nebraska, is gathering place and a point of civic pride.

Not since Ponca Creek jumped its banks and quickly swamped about a third of the town. The flood set off a chain reaction that threatens to unravel this tight-knit community.

“Everybody would really like to stay here, but we don’t have the housing. I mean there’s just not enough room,” says Tamara Smith, whose car is full of household items she’s collected to replace essentials she lost in the flood.

Smith lost her home. She’s disabled and concerned that the tiny hospital in Lynch will soon close. So, she’s moving.

“It’s a rough time for everybody. And it’s going to get a lot rougher,” Smith says.

Lynch was a difficult place to make a living before the flood, and the disaster clobbered the only part of the local economy that brings money into the area, agriculture.

Ranchers lost cattle, hay to feed them, and in some cases access to pastures. Diane Heiser says she and her husband may sell out, and leave.

“It’s tough. We live really in paradise. I mean this is gorgeous. This valley is just beautiful,” says Heiser. motioning to the hills south of Lynch. “But, the economics are just ... and they’re not getting any easier. It just gets harder and harder and harder to make it.”

It’s a tough situation for Lynch, and for all of Boyd County, Nebraska. Only about 2,000 people live in the whole county. The per capita income is less than $27,000 a year, low for Nebraska. And now the county faces more than $4 million worth of road emergency work.

Credit Nico Leone / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
One of the roads leading out of Lynch, Nebraska, was cratered by flooding in March.

“We’ve got damage all the way from one end of the county to the other,” says Clarence “Chuck” Wrede, Boyd County Sheriff.

And Wrede’s assessment includes a lot of critical infrastructure. The Niobrara River separates Boyd County from the rest of the state. Most county residents do their shopping, and many of them work across the river. But the raging flood on the Niobrara took out the three main bridges near here, leaving only one small one on a gravel county road.

Wrede says all the detours have doubled or tripled some commute times and prompted at least one mother he knows to move her family 60 miles away to O’Neill, Nebraska, to be closer to work. 

Gayle Spencer, who keeps the books for the county water system, says she hates to hear these stories.

“None of these towns can stand to lose anybody,” Spencer says. “None of the churches can stand to lose anybody. The schools! It’s going to be a challenge.”

Flooding also took out the county’s water supply. Tap water won’t be safe to drink for another month, and repairs will cost more than $1 million.

“We didn’t need this at all,” says Spencer.

That feeling is widespread across the Midwest. Last month’s flood is forcing a reckoning in ravaged towns and farms in parts of Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and Iowa.

Pacific Junction, Iowa, a town named for a railroad crossing in the 1870s, is near the southwest corner of the state, hugging the Missouri River. It’s prone to flooding.

But Sharon Stewart says the crests never reached her home — not until last month, when her two-bedroom house took in 12 feet of water. She says many of Pacific Junction’s 450 people are, like her, older lifelong residents, who won’t be going home.

“They can’t go back and face this again. Knowing that everything they had is gone,” says Stewart. “It’s kind of like a death.”

Still, some of these damaged towns will rebuild.

Even in Lynch Nebraska — despite the ruined houses, the cratered roads, and the almost relentless economic erosion — Sandy Fisher, the bowling alley owner, says devoted residents will shore up the town.

“It’ll take more than (the flood) to put us down,” says Fisher.

Frank Morris is a National Correspondent at KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @FrankNewsman.

I’ve been at KCUR almost 30 years, working partly for NPR and splitting my time between local and national reporting. I work to bring extra attention to people in the Midwest, my home state of Kansas and of course Kansas City. What I love about this job is having a license to talk to interesting people and then crafting radio stories around their voices. It’s a big responsibility to uphold the truth of those stories while condensing them for lots of other people listening to the radio, and I take it seriously. Email me at frank@kcur.org or find me on Twitter @FrankNewsman.
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