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Most of Nebraska under state of emergency as 'historic' floodwaters ravage Midwest

Willard Ruzicka on his family's farm in Verdigre, Neb., March 18, 2019. Farmers across Nebraska, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota and South Dakota have lost livestock and livelihoods after record floods pummeled the region. (Mitch Smith/Copyright 2019 The New York Times) 1 / 2
Willard Ruzicka on his family's farm in Verdigre, Neb., March 18, 2019. Farmers across Nebraska, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota and South Dakota have lost livestock and livelihoods after record floods pummeled the region. (Mitch Smith/Copyright 2019 The New York Times)2 / 2

Vice President Mike Pence will survey the widespread destruction across the Midwest on Tuesday, March 19, following "historic" flooding that has killed at least four people, leveled bridges and submerged huge swaths of the region with bone-chilling floodwaters.

Nebraska, Iowa and Wisconsin have declared states of emergency after the most powerful late-winter storm in a decade unleashed torrents of rain that melted snow, overtaking rivers and levees in powerful surges.

While floodwaters remain steady in some areas and recede in others, some regions are bracing for more floods to come as rivers vault toward their crest this week, fed by rapid snowmelt throughout the Missouri and Mississippi River Basins, the National Weather service said.

Nebraska was struck particularly hard; three of the four fatalities occurred in the state. Two-thirds of its 94 counties and four tribal areas declared states of emergency.

It was "the most extensive damage our state has ever experienced," Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts said Monday.

Farmers and ranchers are expecting at least $800 million in losses of livestock and crops, and the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services warned that dirty floodwaters may have contaminated private wells.

Some farmers were marshaled to use heavy equipment for recovery and rescue efforts, with at least one tragic outcome.

James Wilke, a farmer in Platte County, sped his tractor to a person trapped in a car while under the guidance of emergency crews in Columbus. The bridge collapsed.

"James and the tractor went down into the floodwater below," family friend Jodi Hefti wrote on Facebook.

Betty Hamernik, 80, also of Platte County, died after she was trapped in her home by rising floodwater. Aleido Rojas Galan died of his injuries in Lincoln after being rescued in Iowa, and another man was killed by raging waters that overtook a dam in Spencer, CNN reported.

"It just looked like the end of the world coming," Niobrara, Nebraska, Mayor Jody Stark told the Omaha World-Herald.

A third of Offutt Air Force was underwater at one point as airmen raced around the clock to fill sandbags at the installation south of Omaha, where the military oversees nuclear deterrence and global strike capabilities. More than 3,000 feet of runway was submerged.

Airmen abandoned their efforts after the floodwater thrashed buildings and hangars at the home of U.S. Strategic Command.

"It was a lost cause. We gave up," said Tech. Sgt. Rachelle Blake, a 55th Wing spokeswoman, the World-Herald reported. No aircraft were damaged and the command said it would ensure their mission would continue uninterrupted, though operations were limited to essential personnel through Monday.

A "bomb cyclone" - a hurricane-like winter storm - battered the region with strong winds and heavy rainfall. The resulting flooding was particularly intense, because the heavy rain fell on snow that had not melted yet, said Brian Barjenbruch, the science and operations officer for the Weather Service in Omaha.

Barjenbruch said the results have been incredibly damaging in parts of eastern Nebraska and western Iowa.

"It is some of the worst flooding that we've seen in many years," Barjenbruch said of those areas. "In some locations, it's the worst flooding on record on many of these river gauges."

Recovery efforts will soon begin in areas where floodwaters recede and reveal the extent of devastation across the region, though it is unclear when that may occur. The 2011 floodwaters that washed away parts of Plattsmouth, Nebraska, did not retreat for 3 ½ months.

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This article was written by Alex Horton, a reporter for The Washington Post.

The Washington Post's Mark Berman and Reis Thebault contributed to this report.

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