Midwest flooding washes out hundreds of miles of roads, rail lines

By Jessie Higgins
A section of railroad track is shown washed out near Louisville, Neb., on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of BNSF Railroads
A section of railroad track is shown washed out near Louisville, Neb., on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of BNSF Railroads

EVANSVILLE, Ind., April 4 (UPI) -- As the historic floodwaters in Nebraska and Iowa recede, hundreds of miles of roads and rail lines remain impassable, disrupting motorists and halting the movement of agricultural commodities.

More than 200 miles of roads are closed in Nebraska, and nearly 50 in Iowa -- including some major highways -- according to state transportation officials. Some of those roads may open in the coming weeks. Others will remain off-limits well into the summer.


"We know how important it is for people's livelihoods that they be able to travel on these roads," said Jeni Campana, a spokeswoman for the Nebraska Department of Transportation. "Transportation is something people take for granted until they can't drive somewhere. This is definitely having an impact."

Roughly 350 miles of rail lines also are out of service -- 200 miles of Union Pacific lines and 150 miles of BNSF.


The disruption is impacting numerous agricultural industries, including meat and grain producers who utilize rail lines to ship Midwest-grown beef, pork, chicken and grains across the country..

The rail closures have delivered a particularly hard blow to Nebraska's ethanol plants, many of which have been unable to ship any of the corn-derived fuel since the flooding began in mid-March.

"It's not so much a problem of not getting [corn] in, but not getting the ethanol out," said Megan Grimes, the ethanol project manager at the Nebraska Ethanol Board. "When you produce ethanol, you need somewhere to take it. If the plants are full and can't ship it out, they have to shut down."

Some plants have tried to move ethanol out by truck, with minimal success, Grimes said. It's a far more expensive mode of transportation, and it moves much less product than trains.

As of last week, 11 of Nebraska's 28 ethanol plants were operating at reduced capacity, Grimes said. The hope is that by slowing production, they will give the rail companies time to repair the lines before the plants have to shut.

Nebraska produces about 13 percent of the nation's ethanol, most of which is shipped to California.


"Each day they produce less, that's less money coming in," Grimes said. "The price has gotten a lot better for ethanol, and these plants could be selling."

It's unclear when all the damaged roads and rail lines will reopen, but repair work is well underway.

At the height of the flood, more than 2,000 miles of roads in Nebraska were closed, Campana said. And more roads are opening every day, depending on the level of repairs they need.

Likewise with rail lines, some areas are easier to fix than others, said Nate Bachman, a spokesman for Georgetown Rail Equipment Co., which has sent workers to help restore Midwestern lines.

"Usually, what happens is the water will wash away the support material that is under the tracks," Bachman said. "Water is very powerful. It's a very tedious process getting in, lifting the track up, putting the material under it and replacing the line a few yards at a time."

Nebraska also has 20 damaged bridges, 15 of which are closed and in need of serious repairs.

"Bridges take a while to build," Campana said. "If there is an option to put in a temporary bridge in places, we will look at that."


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