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Council moves forward on quiet crossing preliminary engineering agreement

Downtown Hastings is one step closer to having quiet railroad crossings.

Members of the Hastings City Council voted 7-0 at their regular meeting May 24 to approve the preliminary engineering service agreement between the city of Hastings and BNSF Railway Co. for the quiet crossings project. Councilwoman Ginny Skutnik was absent.

This agreement with BNSF will cover preliminary engineering and a diagnostic review for all seven crossings included in the project — between Lincoln and Elm avenues. The agreement is for $18,576.

Lee Vrooman, city director of engineering, said the next steps after the approval of the agreement are to schedule the diagnostic review, finish the design drawings, submit those to the Federal Railroad Administration and start working on the construction and maintenance agreements with BNSF for each crossing.

“So you’ll see another agreement, hopefully, in a few months,” he said.

Then, the project will go out for bids.

“I don’t have a concrete time frame on all this,” Vrooman said. “It’s kind of dependent on the railroad and their reviews of these drawings and agreements, but we’ll keep plowing forward.”

The city has budgeted $250,000 from sales tax receipts in each of the last two fiscal years for the quiet crossings project.

“I would like to thank staff for all of their hard work on this over the past several years,” Mayor Corey Stutte said. “I know there’s been a lot of progress made over the past few months. Things kind of slowed down with the FRA and BNSF as with everyone when it came to COVID, but I’m glad to see things on track.”

The May 24 meeting was the last one to take place in the City Building, 220 N. Hastings Ave., for quite some time.

The City Council, as well as all other municipal boards that currently meet in the council chambers, will begin congregating in the Hastings Public Library second-floor meeting room.

As part of repairs to the City Building basement, the basement’s current contents will be stored in council chambers. It will take a little longer for employees to move to Hastings Utilities’ North Denver Station so other repairs can proceed at city hall.

“The problem we’ve run into is contractors and availability of necessary equipment,” City Administrator Dave Ptak said. “It looks like the contractor that would do the renovation at North Denver for Development Services — it might take until August to get that completed, so they would be able to move.”

Also, it will take time to install the information technology equipment needed for the employees to relocate to the North Denver Station.

“In talking with Mr. Nielsen, it could be August before we get the necessary switches that will allow us to accommodate the number of new hookups we’re going to need within the network as far as at North Denver,” Ptak said, referring to Erik Nielsen, director of information technology for the city.

Ptak hopes the moving will occur before then.

“It’s not something we hoped would take this long, but unfortunately with building materials and scarcity of contractors, as well as just the result of COVID, we’re running behind getting what we need to make this happen,” he said. “We will move people as soon as the areas they are to be located in are available.”

In other business, the council:

  • Unanimously approved Ordinance 4665 amending the Zoning District Map to change zoning from I-2, Heavy Industrial District to R-1A, Single Family Large Lot Residential District for property generally located between 825 South Elm Avenue and 1007 South Elm Avenue. The council also unanimously approved suspending the rules and waiving the second and final readings to approve Ordinance 4665.

Held a public hearin

  • g to receive citizen and public comments regarding the implementation of the 2019 Community Development Block Grant for Downtown Revitalization. No action was required.
  • Unanimously approved a building agreement with VRL Construction LLC doing business as Rathman Manning Construction for $721,684. The new building at the Hastings Municipal Airport will house snowplows, freeing up space for a potential aircraft mechanic business. The project is funded by the Federal Aviation Administration.
  • Unanimously approved a revision to the city employee handbook.
  • Unanimously approved appointing Lori Olinger to the Housing Authority for a term that expires May 24, 2026.

Grim western fire season starts much drier than record 2020
Scientists say the outlook for the western U.S. fire season is grim because it's starting far drier than 2020's record-breaking fire year
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As bad as last year’s record-shattering fire season was, the western U.S. starts this year’s in even worse shape.

The soil in the West is record dry for this time of year. In much of the region, plants that fuel fires are also the driest scientists have seen. The vegetation is primed to ignite, especially in the Southwest where dead juniper trees are full of flammable needles.

“It’s like having gasoline out there,” said Brian Steinhardt, forest fire zone manager for Prescott and Coconino national forests in Arizona.

A climate change-fueled megadrought of more than 20 years is making conditions that lead to fire even more dangerous, scientists said. Rainfall in the Rockies and farther west was the second lowest on record in April, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“It means that the dice are loaded toward a lot of forest fire this year,” said Park Williams, a UCLA climate and fire scientist, who calculated that soil in the western half of the nation is the driest it has been since 1895. “This summer we’re going into fire season with drier fuels than we were at this time last year.”

In addition, the western drought is deepening week by week.

In late March, less than one-third of California was suffering extreme or exceptional drought. Now more than 73% is, according to the National Drought Monitor, which is based on precipitation, temperature, soil moisture and streamflow measurements. A year ago, heading into the record-smashing 2020 fire year when more than 4% of California burned, just 3% of the state was in extreme or exceptional drought.

But the outlook is worse elsewhere.

“I think the Southwest is really primed for a bad fire season,” University of Utah fire scientist Phil Dennison said. That’s because last year’s normal monsoon season, which brings much of the year’s rainfall, never showed up.

A year ago, none of Arizona, Nevada and Utah was in extreme or exceptional drought, but now more than 90% of Utah, 86% of Arizona and 75% of Nevada is in those highest drought categories, according to the drought monitor. New Mexico jumped from 4% extreme or exceptional drought a year ago to more than 77% now.

UCLA meteorologist Daniel Swain, who also works for the National Center for Atmospheric Research and The Nature Conservancy, said key factors going into fire season are soil and plant wetness.

“So is soil moisture very low? Is vegetation extremely dry? Absolutely, yes. Unequivocally, yes. Pretty much everywhere in California and the Southwest,” Swain said. “So that box is checked big time in a way that is going to massively increase the potential background flammability ... given a spark, given extreme weather conditions.”

This doesn’t necessarily ensure the 2021 fire season will be worse than 2020. Last year more than 15,800 square miles (40,960 square kilometers) of the United States burned, an area about the size of Maryland and Delaware combined. Several scientists said last year’s fires were stoked not just by hot, dry conditions, but by unusual situations that made a bad year horrific:

Two intense heat waves — one that nearly set a record for hottest temperature on Earth in Death Valley — set the stage, and a freak California lightning barrage provided lots of spark.

The lightning outbreak was the type that has happened only a few times in history and is unlikely to occur two years in a row, Swain said.

“Maybe it won’t be the hottest summer,” he said, adding. “I’m really grasping at straws here. All we have going for us is dumb luck.”

When the scientists see extremely dry or dying trees, they get even more worried.

In Arizona, junipers are succumbing to the 20-year drought and its two-year intensification, said Joel McMillin, a forest health zone leader for the U.S. Forest Service there. Officials haven’t done a precise count but anecdotally the die-off is 5% to 30% with some patches up to 60%.

Until the dead needles drop to the ground, which takes a year or so, the fire hazard increases, fire manager Steinhardt said. “So you have something that’s highly flammable and it’s ... 20-, 30-, 40-foot tall and every single one of those needles on there now becomes an ember that can be launched.”

“This is probably one of the driest and potentially most challenging situations I’ve been in,” said the veteran of 32 fire seasons.

In California, normally drought-tolerant blue oaks are dying around the San Francisco Bay Area, said Scott Stephens, a fire science professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “They don’t have access to water. Soil moisture is so low. When you start to see blue oak dying, that gets your attention.”

Human-caused climate change and decades of fire suppression that increases fuel loads are aggravating fire conditions across the West, scientists said.

Global warming has contributed to the megadrought and is making plants more prone to burning.

Normally a good part of the sun’s energy removes water from plants and soil, but when they are already dry, that energy instead makes the air hotter, which creates a feedback loop, Swain said.

And drier conditions lead to beetle infestations that further weaken and kill trees, said University of Utah’s Dennison.

For decades, U.S. firefighting agencies have tried to put out fires as quickly as possible, and that’s usually worked, UCLA’s Williams said. But the practice resulted in the buildup of dense trees, brush and other potential fire fuels.

“Fire is escaping our control increasingly frequently,” he said. “And some of the reason for that might be because of increasing density of fuels. But we also see that these fires are escaping our control during record-breaking heat waves — and it’s the warmest, driest years when we have the hardest time controlling fires.”

Nebraska to end extra $300-a-week pandemic unemployment cash
Nebraska will end a $300-a-week unemployment bonus that has been going to jobless workers during the pandemic
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LINCOLN — Nebraska will end a $300-a-week unemployment bonus that has been going to jobless workers during the pandemic, Gov. Pete Ricketts said Monday as he declared a “return to normalcy” and rescinded the last of his virus-related executive orders.

Nebraska joined at least 22 other Republican-led states that are halting the additional unemployment benefits, including assistance for gig workers and the self-employed, who don’t normally qualify.

“Now it’s time to return to normalcy,” Ricketts said at what he called his last pandemic-related news conference.

Ricketts said the extra benefits will end June 19. The state is also stopping pandemic assistance for people who earn money from both self-employment and wages, and a program that extended regular benefits once they were exhausted.

The different benefits are going to a total of 15,837 recipients and were slated to expire in September if Nebraska hadn’t withdrawn from the federal programs early.

Ricketts pointed to Nebraska’s status as the state with the lowest unemployment nationally last month and one of the lowest overall throughout the pandemic. He said he also believes that the $300 benefit creates a disincentive to find a job when the state’s online job portal has 39,000 open positions.

Workers’ advocates have disputed that argument and countered that employers should offer higher pay if they want to attract quality employees. Ricketts, who has opposed previous minimum wage increases, said employers should pay what the free market dictates.

“I certainly think the employers should pay what the market demands to hire people,” Ricketts said. “The government should not be interfering with that by artificially driving that number up.”

Nebraska was also one of the first states to reinstate work-search requirements for the unemployed, back in July — several months before the the number of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations peaked. Ricketts has taken a more hands-off approach throughout the pandemic than many other states, imposing coronavirus restrictions in public areas and crowded places, but never issuing a statewide mask mandate or stay-at-home order.

Ricketts said the decision to end benefits was based on Nebraska’s low hospitalization rate for infected people. Nebraska had 73 people hospitalized as of Sunday, accounting for just 2% of total capacity and down from the record high of 987 in mid-November.

Nebraska has confirmed 223,054 cases and 2,249 deaths since the pandemic began, according to the state’s online track portal. The state has vaccinated 53.7% of residents who are at least 16 years old.

Ricketts also rescinded an executive order that lifted weight limits on truckers hauling food, supplies and equipment, and an order that allowed restaurants to offer take-out alcohol. State lawmakers passed a law this year allowing take-out alcohol indefinitely. The old regulations will go back into effect June 1.

Nebraska inmates' fight to wed ends after one of them dies
A man and a woman convicted in separate murders who fought the state of Nebraska for years for the right to marry each other will never have that chance after one of them died earlier this year
  • Updated

The Associated Press

LINCOLN — A man and a woman convicted in separate murders who fought the state of Nebraska for years for the right to marry each other will never have that chance after one of them died earlier this year.

The death of 40-year-old Nicole Wetherell in February also ended the court case she and 49-year-old Paul Gillpatrick had waged since 2014 before any precedent could be established.

Gillpatrick and Wetherell got engaged in 2011, but officials consistently denied their request to marry because the corrections department was unwilling to transport either of them to the other’s prison for a wedding ceremony. They were also not allowed to marry via video conference, because the law requires them to be physically in the presence of witnesses and a magistrate or minister.

A U.S. District Judge ruled in the couple’s favor in 2019, but that decision was put on hold while the state appealed.

They had met through a mutual friend in the 1990s, before they were imprisoned. Gillpatrick, who is in a Lincoln prison, was sentenced in 2010 to 55 to 90 years for second-degree murder in the 2009 killing of former Omaha firefighter Robby Robinson. Wetherell was serving a life sentence at a prison in York for first-degree murder for the 1998 stabbing of Scott Catenacci in Bellevue.

Wetherell died Feb. 26 with an undisclosed medical condition, officials said.

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the case Wednesday before deciding the state’s appeal, according to the Omaha World-Herald.

The executive director of the Nebraska American Civil Liberties Union Danielle Conrad said the case is a reminder that “justice delayed is justice denied.” The ACLU represented the couple.

“The bottom line is this: Our clients were simply asking for the ability to marry. Marriage is a fundamental right, including for Nebraskans who are incarcerated,” Conrad said.

She said Gillpatrick and his legal team are evaluating his options.