By Karen Dillon
BROWNVILLE, Neb. (Reuters) - Vice President Mike Pence arrived in Nebraska on Tuesday to survey the devastation unleashed across the U.S. Midwest by floods that have killed four people and caused more than a billion dollars in damage to crops, livestock and roads.
The floodwaters have inundated a large swath of farm states Iowa and Nebraska along the Missouri River, North America's longest river, prompting half of Iowa's 99 counties to declare states of emergency."Touched down in Omaha, Nebraska to survey flood damage & thank volunteers & emergency personnel," Pence said on Twitter, in a post that included photos of him meeting with the governors of both states and lawmakers.
"The hearts of the American people are with those who have been impacted across the Midwest!" Pence said in the tweet.
Nebraska, Iowa and Wisconsin have all declared states of emergency in the floods, which stem from a powerful winter hurricane known as a "bomb cyclone" that slammed into the U.S. Farm Belt last week, killing untold numbers of livestock, destroying grains and soybeans in storage, and cutting off access to farms because of road and rail damage.
The latest confirmed death was identified by the sheriff in Fremont County, Iowa, as 55-year-old Aleido Rojas Galan, who was pulled from floodwaters along with another man on Friday and later succumbed to injuries.
Authorities said they had rescued nearly 300 people in Nebraska alone, with some rivers continuing to rise.
Rescuers could be seen in boats pulling pets from flooded homes. Some roadways crumbled to rubble, while sections of others were submerged. In Hamburg, Iowa, floodwaters covered buildings.
In Brownville, Nebraska, floodwaters lapped at the edge of the small town of 132 people, closing the main bridge across the Missouri River.
$1 BILLION IN DAMAGE
"It’s a lot worse than I’ve ever seen it,” said Malina Wheeldon, who went ahead with the scheduled opening of her new Euphoric Soul Salon & Boutique business despite the floods. Her husband, Justin, who grew up in Brownville, agreed, saying he had lived through the floods of 1993, 2010 and 2011.
"About every five years now, we have a 100-year flood,” he said.
The Missouri was expected to crest at 47.5 feet (14.5 m) on Tuesday, breaking its 2011 record by more than a foot (31 cm), the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency said. The flooding was expected to continue through Thursday.
Nebraska officials estimated more than $1 billion in flood damage for the state's agricultural sector so far, according to Craig Head, vice president of issue management at the Nebraska Farm Bureau. Head said the number was expected to grow as floodwaters recede.
"It's really too early to know for sure how bad this is going to get. But one thing we do know: It's catastrophic for farmers," said Matt Perdue, government relations director for the National Farmers Union trade group. "We’re hoping it's only $1 billion, but that's only a hope."
Nebraska officials estimate the floods have caused $553 million in damage to public infrastructure and other assets, as well as $89 million in privately owned assets, according to the state's Emergency Management Agency on Tuesday.
The water also covered about a third of Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, Nebraska, home to the U.S. Strategic Command, whose responsibilities include defending against and responding to nuclear attacks.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is distributing 400,000 sandbags to operators of 12 levees along the Missouri River in Missouri and Kansas that were in danger of being breached by floodwaters, the Army Corps said in a news release on Tuesday.
In Niobrara, Nebraska, south of the Missouri River near the border with South Dakota, Mayor Jody Stark said flooding that began on Thursday had devastated his community of 350 people, with businesses being the hardest hit.
"Our road system is shot pretty much in every direction coming into town," Stark said.
"It's one day at a time. We will do what we can to get back on our feet," Stark said. "It's just so heartbreaking. It's going to be tough, but hopefully we can all get through it."
The floodwaters were the result of snowmelt following heavy rains last week and warm weather, said Bob Oravec, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service's Weather Prediction Center.
The weather service's website shows some locales along the Missouri River in Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri are expected to see waters rise for several more days.
Roads leading to the Nebraska Public Power District's Cooper nuclear plant near Brownville were engulfed by floodwaters from the Missouri, but the facility was still operating safely at full power on Tuesday.
The plant operator was flying staff members and supplies to the plant with helicopters, said power district spokesman Mark Becker.
(Reporting by Karen Dillon; Additional reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York, Rich McKay in Atlanta, Jarrett Renshaw in Philadelphia, P.J. Huffstutter and Mark Weinraub in Chicago and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Bill Tarrant, Jonathan Oatis and Peter Cooney)