- - Monday, October 5, 2020

In March of 2019, my home state of Nebraska faced what is known as a “bomb cyclone,” a rare winter storm that develops over land like a hurricane. The bomb cyclone brought several feet of snow to the western half of the state, several inches of rain on frozen ground in the eastern half, and unprecedented flooding along the Missouri River and its tributaries. The bureaucratic nightmare that followed was a disaster in its own right.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency tasked with (among other things) management of waterways including the Missouri River, bungled its response to this emergency by unevenly applying its protocols for levee repair eligibility and hiding behind red tape. It is a cautionary tale of the federal government getting in the way of local decision-makers. 

This issue is close to my heart. Peru, Nebraska, is my hometown and part of my district in the Nebraska Legislature. Peru is a vibrant community filled with leaders, farmers and families who genuinely care about their town. The levee protecting Peru from the Missouri River was built in 1952 and is managed by a local board of area farmers. 

On March 16, 2019, Peru’s levee failed under the record surge of a 500-year flood. More than 10,000 acres of dry land were left underwater for more than nine months. Peru’s critical infrastructure, including the water-treatment plant and sewage-treatment lagoons, were compromised. Farmland, homes and streets were rendered useless.

My office immediately coordinated with local and state officials to mobilize recovery efforts for impacted areas of Southeast Nebraska. The hashtag #NebraskaStrong began trending as the initial devastation was cleared and early recovery efforts started. Recovery efforts in Peru hit a brick wall when the Corps of Engineers, tasked with maintaining levees within their system along the Missouri River, refused to repair the town’s levee.



There are two designations for levees within the Corps’ management system. “Active” levees have followed all regulations and are eligible for repair funding if destroyed in a flood. “Inactive” levees have failed to follow certain regulations and are ineligible for repair by the Corps. Peru’s levee fell onto the inactive list in 2018 for the first time in 66 years because the local levee board failed to complete a set of paperwork that would have cost the board, operating on an annual budget of $25,000, thousands of dollars in attorney’s fees to complete. The board instead invested their budget into levee upkeep. They could have never anticipated that six months later, their levee would be obliterated by historic floodwaters. 

Since the Peru levee had been designated as “inactive,” it was ineligible for repair. Other Corps levees on the inactive list failed in the 2019 floods, as well. Even though those levees were on the inactive list for far more serious infractions, including pre-existing structural failures, they were repaired because they protected larger towns and traffic on Interstate 29. Peru’s levee was the only Corps levee-active or levee-inactive left unrepaired.

There is some hope for the Peru levee to eventually be repaired, thanks to Congressman Adrian Smith’s advocacy to include language for levee repair exceptions in the 2020 Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) Bill. Even with the hope for a happy ending, however, Peru represents one of the hundreds of small towns that have been left behind by the uneven hand of the federal bureaucracy devastating local control. Endless red tape from the federal government has left rural America underwater.

• Julie Slama, a member of the Nebraska State Senate, represents district 1. Follow her on twitter @SenatorSlama.

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