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A Hydrometeorological Assessment of the Historic 2019 Flood of Nebraska, Iowa, and South Dakota

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  • 1 High Plains Regional Climate Center, and School of Natural Resources, University of Nebraska–Lincoln, Lincoln, Nebraska
  • | 2 Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, University of Nebraska–Lincoln, Lincoln, Nebraska
  • | 3 Nebraska Water Center, University of Nebraska–Lincoln, Lincoln, Nebraska
  • | 4 High Plains Regional Climate Center, and School of Natural Resources, University of Nebraska–Lincoln, Lincoln, Nebraska
  • | 5 School of Natural Resources, University of Nebraska–Lincoln, Lincoln, Nebraska
  • | 6 High Plains Regional Climate Center, and School of Natural Resources, University of Nebraska–Lincoln, Lincoln, Nebraska
  • | 7 National Weather Service, Omaha, Nebraska
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Abstract

During early 2019, a series of events set the stage for devastating floods in eastern Nebraska, western Iowa, and southeastern South Dakota. When the floodwaters hit, dams and levees failed, cutting off towns while destroying roads, bridges, and rail lines, further exacerbating the crisis. Lives were lost and thousands of cattle were stranded. Estimates indicate that the cost of the flooding has topped $3 billion as of August 2019, with this number expected to rise. After a warm and wet start to winter, eastern Nebraska, western Iowa, and southeastern South Dakota endured anomalously low temperatures and record-breaking snowfall. By March 2019, rivers were frozen, frost depths were 60–90 cm, and the water equivalent of the snowpack was 30–100 mm. With these conditions in place, a record-breaking surface cyclone rapidly developed in Colorado and moved eastward, producing heavy rain toward the east and blizzard conditions toward the west. In areas of eastern Nebraska, western Iowa, and southeastern South Dakota, rapid melting of the snowpack due to this rain-on-snow event quickly led to excessive runoff that overwhelmed rivers and streams. These conditions brought the region to a standstill. In this paper, we provide an analysis of the antecedent conditions in eastern Nebraska, western Iowa, and southeastern South Dakota and the development of the surface cyclone that triggered the historic flooding, along with a look into the forecast and communication of flood impacts prior to the flood. The study used multiple datasets, including in situ observations and reanalysis data. Understanding the events that led to the flooding could aid in future forecasting efforts.

Corresponding author: Paul Flanagan, pflanagan3@unl.edu

Abstract

During early 2019, a series of events set the stage for devastating floods in eastern Nebraska, western Iowa, and southeastern South Dakota. When the floodwaters hit, dams and levees failed, cutting off towns while destroying roads, bridges, and rail lines, further exacerbating the crisis. Lives were lost and thousands of cattle were stranded. Estimates indicate that the cost of the flooding has topped $3 billion as of August 2019, with this number expected to rise. After a warm and wet start to winter, eastern Nebraska, western Iowa, and southeastern South Dakota endured anomalously low temperatures and record-breaking snowfall. By March 2019, rivers were frozen, frost depths were 60–90 cm, and the water equivalent of the snowpack was 30–100 mm. With these conditions in place, a record-breaking surface cyclone rapidly developed in Colorado and moved eastward, producing heavy rain toward the east and blizzard conditions toward the west. In areas of eastern Nebraska, western Iowa, and southeastern South Dakota, rapid melting of the snowpack due to this rain-on-snow event quickly led to excessive runoff that overwhelmed rivers and streams. These conditions brought the region to a standstill. In this paper, we provide an analysis of the antecedent conditions in eastern Nebraska, western Iowa, and southeastern South Dakota and the development of the surface cyclone that triggered the historic flooding, along with a look into the forecast and communication of flood impacts prior to the flood. The study used multiple datasets, including in situ observations and reanalysis data. Understanding the events that led to the flooding could aid in future forecasting efforts.

Corresponding author: Paul Flanagan, pflanagan3@unl.edu
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