NIOBRARA — Omaha attorney David Domina traveled to Niobrara on Monday evening after fielding many inquiries about whether legal action could be taken as a result of the damage from the failure of the Spencer Dam in March.
The Niobrara Lutheran Church’s fellowship hall was full of area residents — homeowners, farmers and businessmen — some of whom suffered severe losses as a result of the wall of water that hit the bottom Niobrara business district and farmland after the 88-year-old Spencer Dam failed.
But Domina did not have good news.
“The Spencer Dam is owned by the Nebraska Public Power District, which is covered specifically in the state statutes under tort law,” Domina said.
Domina told the Niobrara residents the statutes contain limited liability provisions when damages occur and are proven to be at fault in a court of law. The statute determines a limit of $1 million per claim per occurrence and a limit of $5 million per occurrence for all claimants.
Domina then presented the most recent estimates from the four counties involved in the Spencer Dam incident, noting Knox County leading the way with over $17 million in damages.
“So you see, the counties will claim damages. If any damages are awarded,and monies will dwindle quickly or be all gone,” Domina said. “I know that is not what you want to hear. No matter who you are or the circumstances, the law is specific.”
Domina invited those attending to share their experiences and the gamut ran from pointing at the state being at fault because two bridges above the dam went out before the dam failed, to the alleged continued failure of the US Army Corps of Engineers to address the sediment issue in the Niobrara and Missouri rivers, filling the Gavins Point Dam reservoir.
When the water hit Niobrara that fateful morning, it rose 10 to 12 feet in five minutes, one resident said.
Domina said there is no doubt the rivers have been reconfigured since 1954, but it would take a lot of science and engineering to prove who is responsible for the significant losses from that day of flooding.
The Ruzicka family, who live at Pisherville, said they left their farm at 9 a.m. and returned about 1 p.m. to nothing.
The 112-year old farm house, which had never previously had water in it, was destroyed by ice; barns and machinery were destroyed and livestock were dead. They came to the meeting hoping that there would be someone who would have to answer for their losses.
One Niobrara business lost to the flooding, the Country Cafe, is rebuilding despite there being no assistance is available.
FEMA officials only deal with residential claims that will make a home safe to live in. They generally direct businesses to Small Business Association for a loan.
“Niobrara should write a book about flooding,” Domina said. “This is the second time I have come to talk to Niobrara residents about their options after a 500-year flood event and the first time was just a few years ago.”