Niobrara river floods Wyo’s least populated county
June 5, 2015
Residents of eastern Wyoming were bracing for another storm June 4, 2015, and watching flood waters recede after the Niobrara River and a nearby creek overflowed the night before.
Losses of livestock were reported, and an estimated 80 people were evacuated from Lusk and Manville and surrounding areas as heavy rain and hail fell late Wednesday night, taking out bridges, closing highways, and damaging homes and property.
Two units from the National Guard deployed, and the United States Department of Agricultural coordinated services. Law enforcement closed more than 100 miles of road near the Nebraska state line.
US Highways 18, 20, and 85 intersect in downtown Lusk. Each one had major shutdowns reported.
Retired county extension educator Tammie Jensen told a harrowing story of a family that had taken shelter in a basement, believing themselves to be in the path of a tornado. "Fortunately, help arrived and got them out in time," she said.
The home was later submerged.
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Rescuers found a 4-H family on top of their trailer. The Molzahns were unable to save their four club lambs and two goats. "They just couldn't get to them," Jensen said.
A National Guard chief warrant officer was part of a convoy that helped to find the best routes of travel when the storm cleared. The officer, who asked not to be named, said their five-ton trucks can get through most anything, but he tested one bridge on foot and turned back, determining it was too dangerous.
"We're knee deep in water and still under a flood warning," he said.
Dispatch for the Niobrara County sheriff's office ticked off the names of highways, overpasses, and bridges that were either under water, damaged or destroyed.
The area was spared a second surge from incoming weather.
The fairgrounds were made available as shelter for people and animals, but authorities weren't sure trucks and trailers could get to the site.
Friday morning, the facilities remained the hub for crews and displaced people. The Red Cross is in town, and the smell of hot coffee and breakfast filled the air. Staples like canned beans, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and drinking water were available for the asking.
Firefighters from Cheyenne and Laramie also traveled to the area to assist.
USDA's Clint Anderson said the priority as the storm rolled in around 9 pm was human life. "We are just starting to turn the corner and check for livestock as the flood waters recede," Anderson said.
Electricity and water services were unavailable Thursday. A local truck stop reported long lines as people filled up gas cans for generators.
Bud Reed of the historic Reed 77 Ranch said he and his help checked things out and found they had lost a couple of yearling steers out of 250 head. "Those two got caught up in the flood and we found them about a mile downstream," Reed said. "There was so much water coming down, it looked like the Missouri River."
Reed said he spent the day Thursday fixing fence and getting around by ATV. He said they would go back out again Friday horseback to take another look around.
At the Bar J L, five calves separated from their mother cows were found up against a fence corner, presumably drowned.
"Everything got stirred up. There was nothing we could do when it hit," said Gary Miller. Miller said they moved 140 pairs to higher ground after the storm, but feared there were calves under a drift of hail.
Authorities estimate seven inches of rain and large hail fell in about two hours on ground that was already saturated.
Lusk is the county seat in the least populated county in the least populous state in the U.S. It is named after Frank S. Lusk, founded in 1886 by the renowned rancher. Cattle ranching remains the primary industry in the town of 1,500.
The community's motto is, "The little town with big possibilities."
Jensen says she has lived there most of her life, and described the community as close. "We'll see how well we pull together on this," she said.
Lacey Dale Brott, a resident who posted photos on Facebook also shared these comments on her page, "Moving to Lusk was the best decision we've ever made. Our little town flooded early this morning, and in the few short hours since it happened, I've seen the town come together, and people helping people like I've never witnessed before. Many folks were devastated, but everyone is safe. God bless all of you and this little town!"