The disastrous flooding this month in Nebraska and much of the upper Midwest is a reminder of several important truths. First, weather and climate are not the same thing. Climate affects the weather, not the other way around. And as climate changes, weather becomes much more unpredictable.
Second, the peaceful, flowing rivers beside which we love to build our houses, our farms and our ranches are almost always at their normal level when we decide where to locate structures. The wider river is visible only when unusual conditions deliver a larger volume of water down the river bed. We plan on the water rising in the spring as the snow and ice melts and heads down stream. But we cannot plan beyond that.
In the current catastrophe, heavy rains last fall saturated the soil, which then froze and was covered in deep snow. Another hard freeze hit shortly before a recent warm, rainy front arrived, melting the snowpack. All that water from the rain and snowmelt had nowhere to go, except across a mostly flat, hard surface. Once the ground thawed, it was still saturated, with the topsoil washing away as the water headed for creeks and rivers. Many of the levees, and some dams, meant to hold the water back were overwhelmed. At least four people have been killed, three of them in Nebraska. Flooding doesn’t inspire fear like tornadoes or hurricanes, but it should, because it’s merciless.
One grim aspect of the disaster is that the freeze and flooding occurred during calving season. Nebraska is a cattle state. There are more cows than people. The business of raising and feeding cattle contributes $12.1 billion to Nebraska’s economy. The average herd size is fewer than 100, and most of the cattle give birth to their calves outdoors. It is terrible to watch a young calf die. The combination of severe cold and snow followed by the floods has almost certainly killed thousands of them.
The third truth is that farming and ranching are businesses extremely vulnerable to weather. The vulnerability worsens when commodity prices are low for a prolonged period, as they have been for the past three years. President Donald Trump’s tariffs made a bad situation worse. Even with federal disaster assistance, a lot of good operators will probably close up shop in the coming year. They simply won’t be able to plant the crop or buy the cows they were planning before the flood, in part because they know this: More flooding could still be on the way.
The final truth is that disasters such as this one bring people together. I have no doubt that the most common question Nebraskans are asking today is: How can I help? Selflessness is on display in every stricken community, in hard-hit Iowa and Wisconsin, too. The nasty political debates that are tearing the country apart have disappeared as men and women unite to begin the process of rebuilding their lives.
And they will get it done. There will be a moment in the future when Nebraskans gather to remember these floods, as will those in other affected states. They will remember the terror and the destruction. And they will remember that they survived because they stuck together.
In the summer of 1950, when I was 6 years old, there was a series of floods close to my hometown of Lincoln. The disaster killed 23 people and destroyed 60,000 acres of land. Some adults thought it would be good experience for the Boy Scouts to help out by delivering food and clothing to victims. I was a Cub Scout and went along. I remember sitting in the bus staring out at waters that lined the highway as we entered a small town with our packages. When we left to head back to Lincoln, a river of water was flowing across the highway blocking our way. I was terrified, even though our driver managed to get through to safety.
Now and again, I still have dreams of being stranded by a flood, cut off from all means of escape with only the hope that the water will recede on its own. In time the water does recede. The terror subsides, and people return to normal. But what will normal be when a changing climate drives the weather that produces new floods?
Bob Kerrey, a Democrat, is a former governor and U.S. senator from Nebraska. He wrote this for the Washington Post.