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Some Floodwaters Contain Contaminants, Nebraska Sheriff Says


An Air Force officer has to guard against a special danger. It's the danger that an enemy would catch you by surprise and destroy your planes on the ground. The commander of Nebraska's Offutt Air Force Base had to face that danger, but for Colonel Mike Manion, the enemy was rising water.

MICHAEL MANION: Once the flood waters started to rise, they were rising much faster than anybody had anticipated. And so we took some precautions and moved those aircraft to different locations.

INSKEEP: Dozens of buildings on the base were evacuated. It's one of many spots across the Midwest affected by flooding. The trouble is that snowmelt filled Midwestern streams. A lot of that water ends up near the Offutt base near the junction of two big rivers - the Missouri and the Platte.

Now, if you follow the course of the Platte about 50 miles or so upstream, you arrive at Fremont, Neb., in Dodge County, which is also flooded. And so we have called Steve Hespen, the sheriff of Dodge County, Neb. Sir, good morning.

STEVE HESPEN: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What does Fremont, Neb., look like?

HESPEN: Well, currently in Fremont, Neb., on the south end - was primarily the area of the city that was the most affected by the floodwaters. Thankfully, in the last - since yesterday, the water has been receding. Prior to that - beginning Thursday into Friday - is when the heavy flooding occurred in the south, and the town was basically totally underwater.

There was a lot of - it's a residential, commercial area in there, so the businesses were shut down. Home owners were forced out of their homes for several days, and now with receding water, some were able to return.

INSKEEP: Some were able to return. Although, of course, when the water goes down, there may be a mess behind. As best you can determine, what went wrong? Because isn't there flood protection, a whole system of levees, for towns like Fremont?

HESPEN: Yes. There is. There's a series of several levees. The first breach that we encountered during this flood was an area about 10 miles west of Fremont. There was a breach in a levee there. The water then continued west and - or - excuse me - east and broke through levees in several different locations west of Fremont. And then when it entered Fremont, it also breached several levees, which caused extensive flooding on the south end of Fremont. It was a...

INSKEEP: Oh, so multiple breaks in the flood control system then.

HESPEN: Yes. There was.

INSKEEP: Sheriff, I don't want to read too much into your voice, but you sound a little weary. I know it's early. Has it been a tiring few days?

HESPEN: Yeah. It's been - since Thursday into Friday, we spent several hours here. Currently, I'm in the EOC, which is being operated out of the Fremont Police Department in Fremont. And we set up a command post here, and we've been manning it pretty steady since Friday, so the hours have been long.

INSKEEP: Well, now, you mentioned that the floodwaters are beginning to recede, which, in theory, is good. But I know from past floods that people sometimes discover, when floodwaters recede, that an enormous amount of contamination has been left behind from farm fields, from industrial sites or any number of other things. Do you have any sense of the dangers people may face as they start returning home?

HESPEN: Yeah. That's absolutely true. And we've obviously warned people, you know, that the floodwaters do contain various amounts of contaminants and that they are to use caution. A lot of people like to, you know, walk and kids like to go out in floodwaters. But that's - we've advised against that, that that's obviously not a healthy situation.

People need to remain out of the floodwaters as much as possible. And obviously, when they return to the home, many homes - when I say that they're returning, it doesn't necessarily mean that they're returning to live there. They're just returning basically to assess the damage, find out what needs to be done and if their house, in fact, can be livable.

INSKEEP: In a few seconds, has this gone beyond any past flooding in Fremont in people's recent memories?

HESPEN: Yes. Yes. This is being basically listed as a historical flood. I've lived in this area of Dodge County in Fremont all my life, and this is the worst flood situation that I've ever encountered.

INSKEEP: Well, Sheriff Hespen, thanks so much. Hope you get a little rest and a chance for recovery.

HESPEN: All right. Thank you.

INSKEEP: Steve Hespen is the sheriff of Dodge County, Neb., which includes the town of Fremont. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.