Using Water to Fight Water
If you have driven through farm country during harvest season, there is a good chance you have seen the long white grain bags lying in fields like giant caterpillars. Made of 10mm polyethylene (PE) they are usually 9 or 10 feet wide and 200-300 feet long, with a grain capacity of 8,000 to over 14,000 bushels. They are a temporary on-site storage solution, saving farmers’ time and labor spent trucking the harvest to bins and are much cheaper than steel bins. The bags are a one-time use product and cost between $900 and $1,000 each.
While the bags are designed to protect grain from moisture, the residents of Wood River, Nebraska are thankful for these bags and outside-the box-thinking. Ken Christensen of the Grand Island, Nebraska Aurora Cooperative had seen a YouTube video showing grain bags used in place of sand bags. When the massive flooding started in March, they were brainstorming options and he remembered the online video and the Aurora Cooperative donated a bag to use as a temporary dam which helped divert the flood waters. The bag was used together with traditional sand bags along highway 30 near Alda, Nebraska and diverted the water around the town.
Unfortunately, the flooding in March was only the beginning of an extremely wet year, with much of the state already having received more than twice their normal precipitation. Early July brought yet another flooding event to Nebraska when up to 9 inches of rain fell overnight, flooding the area and swelling rivers. To save their town, volunteers created a temporary dam to hold back the Wood River from flooding the town of Wood River. Since the grain bag had been effective in March, the Aurora Cooperative donated two of the huge bags. Using a fire truck to pump water into the empty bags, they were used along Highway 30 and Cottonwood. Dirt was piled along the bags from a field. “We found out that we had to have the white side out, the black side got too hot and we had one rupture. We used a garden hose to run water over the bags to cool the plastic,” said Brian Urbom, local manager for the Cairo, Wood River and Sodtown Aurora Cooperative and paramedic/volunteer on the Wood River Fire Department.
The Aurora Coop was established in1908 and committed to the belief that by joining together, farmers can accomplish things they cannot accomplish alone. They have a strong commitment to their communities and employees. “They have been really good to their employees during the flooding. They never questioned time off and paid for hotel rooms for those whose homes flooded. They have been very good to the volunteer fire department and organizations, like 4-H,” Urbom said. “It has been an unprecedented year, the reality of working in agriculture, whether in crops or livestock, we have to work through all the challenges and keep working for a good outcome.”
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The March flooding was mainly north of highway 30, while the July event affected those living south of the highway. The grain bag dam is still in place, with plans being made for a permanent water barrier. The farming outlook is grim with the fields beyond saturated, some of the crops were drowned out or planting was prevented completely. “Farmers are worried about the cool weather, (possibility of an) early frost and the fields not drying out. Folks who have never had water in their basements are pumping it out this year,” Urbom said.
FEMA has helped some of the residents of Wood River. Different church organizations and groups came to help cleanup homes and offer support. “Some of the houses still have $20-50,000 worth of damage. The owners’ incomes are too high to qualify for federal assistance but they don’t have the money to repair the damage themselves,” Urbom said.
Urbom has been a paramedic for many years, so he was one of the many who stepped forward during the March nightmare. “I was truly overwhelmed by the people who offered help. One lady with a bad back brought us coffee. People came from all over Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, Missouri, it was pretty cool.
“I rode in the airboat doing water rescues from vehicles and homes. The state patrol brought in a LAV (a light armored vehicle, which has eight wheels and is amphibious); we took it across town for a cardiac event since the ambulance couldn’t get there. For about 48 hours none of us slept, from Friday to Sunday. Friday night of the flood we had already shut down the highways, it was like 9 p.m. and this guy pulls up. He was in his 60s or 70s, from eastern Nebraska and he came to fill sandbags. On Monday a couple showed up offering assistance, they were from a town east of Lincoln that had been flooded. When they told us where they were from, we said, ‘Didn’t it flood?’ ‘Our house is gone; we didn’t know what else to do,’ they said.”
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