Senator Ricketts’ Weekly Column: Prioritizing Flood Prevention

Pete Ricketts Weekly Column

Five years ago this week, blizzards and floods caused the most widespread natural disaster in Nebraska’s history. The floods claimed lives and caused billions of dollars in damages across the state. Disaster declarations were issued in 84 of our 93 counties, 104 cities and villages, and 5 tribes. On March 14, 2019, 3,300 Nebraska highway miles were impassable due to severe weather. Thousands of homes and businesses were lost.

As usual, we saw countless Nebraskans stepping up to help their neighbors. We saw the grit, resilience, resourcefulness, and generosity that make our state special. Nebraskans rescued residents and pets. They coordinated hay drop-offs, provided meals and shelter, and cleaned up debris. We raised money for those who had lost everything. We created the Flood Heroes initiative to recognize those who saved lives.

I was especially proud of our Nebraska National Guard. They rescued 112 people. They performed 66 helicopter hoist rescues. They drove nearly 45,000 miles and put in 335 hours of flight time to keep Nebraskans safe.

Government agencies need to prioritize people and provide excellent service, especially after natural disasters. As Governor, I took an all-of-government approach to make sure no red tape was in the way of the response or the recovery. I waived hauling requirements and suspended requirements for trip permits for relief vehicles. I created a housing task force to help displaced Nebraskans find new homes.

I also worked with other Midwestern Governors to demand better customer service of federal agencies. The 2011 floods demonstrated the vulnerability of Offutt Air Force Base, prompting efforts to raise its levees. Yet delays in the permitting process meant important levee upgrades weren’t started before the floods hit again in 2019. It likely cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. That’s unacceptable.

Red tape shouldn’t prevent states from rebuilding and improving protections. I’m proud of how we streamlined processes and improved customer service when I was Governor. I wanted to serve as your Senator to bring those same successes to Washington, D.C. Recently, I introduced bipartisan legislation with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) to do just that. Our Flood Protection and Infrastructure Resilience Act will improve flood protection and strengthen agricultural communities across the country.

Our bill has three components. First, it would make long-term flood resilience a priority for the Emergency Watershed Protection (EWP) Program. Right now, EWP assistance cannot be used to improve protection above what existed before a flood occurred. Those rules make it difficult for entities to re-build in a way that reduces damage from repeat or future disasters. Our bill allows those investments in resilience to be smarter and more cost-effective.

Second, our bill would allow the Secretary of Agriculture to provide an increased federal cost share for certain grants to rehabilitate aging watershed dams. Many rural communities can’t compete for a high local funding match requirement. It keeps them from applying for funding that could help rehabilitate aged dams leaving agricultural and rural communities at a higher risk. Our bill increases the federal cost share to as much as 90%. This would make it easier for local partners to access federal dollars to help rehabilitate aging watershed projects.

Finally, our bill would elevate flood protection as a priority in the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). In 2021, farmers reported $685.9 million in losses to flooding and hurricanes. However, none of the five major agriculture conservation programs mention flood prevention or mitigation as a key purpose. Our bill would formally add prevention and mitigation as a priority. This would make sure the program better assists producers, communities, and other stakeholders.

Cutting red tape is good common-sense. By passing our bill, we can help communities not just recover from disasters, but reduce future damage as well.