Seven months ago, the Midwest experienced one of the most widespread natural disasters in its history – the tragic floods that forced countless families out of their homes, towns and communities.
Under a state of emergency, Nebraska was hit hard statewide in March 2019. Farms were destroyed, main highways and bridges were demolished, and numerous homes were ruined, forcing families to either relocate or rebuild.
Nebraskans are still feeling the impact of the floods, working hard each day to salvage what was damaged and restore the lives they once had.
Small towns not too far outside the greater Omaha area felt the intense blow, including the northern towns of Fremont, Hooper and Winslow. These towns are surrounded by rivers, four of which reached record-breaking levels including the Platte and Elkhorn rivers and the Logan Creek.
Barb Pierce lost her dream home in Fremont, Nebraska, and is still living in a trailer as she and her family await a manufactured home before the first snowfall.
On March 14, Barb Pierce, the existing business director for the Greater Fremont Development Council, wasn’t overly concerned about the flooding as she sat at her dream home she'd only lived in for five years located about two miles west of the Elkhorn River outside Fremont.
She was advised to evacuate by her three children just to be safe, but Pierce had a dog to take care of and wasn’t ready to pack up quite yet, so she moved some furniture around to avoid seepage damage.
However, once Pierce heard word of the predicted crest of the Elkhorn, she realized she would have two feet of water in her driveway. This led her to pack a quick change of clothes and head over to her son’s house to wait for her husband to get off work.
On her drive, she said she was astonished to see a river as far as she could see, where she had just seen fields earlier that day.
“I knew our home was likely to get hit,” she said. “It was too late to turn back and grab anything.”
It wasn’t until five days and eight feet of water later that the Pierces could return to their home, where the entire lower level was filled with water and mud, and what had once been their dream acreage home was now wreckage red tagged for structural damage.
“We were realizing the foundation had shifted so badly we might not be able to save it,” Pierce said. “We had to make some decisions on how to move forward. There [were] still a lot of unknowns.”
The mother of three said she experienced a multitude of emotions on a daily basis in the days that followed – sadness, hope, gratefulness and exhaustion.
“Every morning for a while I struggled with sadness,” she said. “I learned that a good cry first thing usually got it out of the way and then I just moved ahead to face the rest of the day which seemed filled with uncertainty and new decisions to make.”
It was each card in the mail with a donation and an encouraging message, each offer for a place to sleep, each meal delivered or volunteer to help clean that Pierce said got her family through the tragedy.
Luckily, Pierce said, her three children no longer live at home, as she and her husband Steve were forced to live in a camper where they still currently reside. It became evident the first week after the flood that the foundation of their home was too far gone to try to repair, especially in light of future floods that could occur.
Therefore, the family decided to build up higher with dirt and order a manufactured home that they hope to receive before the first snowfall. They applied for and earned Federal Emergency Management Agency funding and a Small Business Administration loan, alongside many donations from friends, family, their church community and employers.
She said the support from so many “continues to remind us of the beauty in life.” She added that she’s grateful Fremont didn’t lose any lives through the flooding, rescue missions or repairs.
“It’s the loss of mementos I saved from my kids’ childhood, picture books and family heirlooms that hurts the most,” Pierce said. “Otherwise the rest is just stuff. It actually reminds me to keep my thoughts towards heaven. This side of heaven isn’t promised to be easy, but it isn’t all there is either. Our lasting peace and pure joy will be in heaven, where I won’t have the emotional ties to things but reunions with loved ones. This is the sermon I repeat to myself on difficult days.”
Zachary Klein performed multiple rescue missions for the residents of Winslow, Nebraska, and helped in the tough decision-making process of relocating the entire town to keep it alive.
Zachary Klein, the fire chief of Winslow, knew this flood was different than years past.
Winslow, a village with a population of 103 according to the 2010 Census, is located on a flood plain. Needless to say, residents knew the drill, so when they were placed on river watch, they put flood protection measures in place, closely monitoring Winslow’s levy and implementing a water bladder to prevent water from coming in.
On March 13, Klein was napping on the cot of the ambulance when his partner coming to relieve him woke him up and told him it was time to start getting residents out of town.
“I asked why and he said that water was starting to come over the road on both the north and south side of town,” Klein said. “This was odd because the water never runs over the road on the north side of town.”
Sure enough, only three short hours after Klein woke up from his nap, the water had already reached the top of the four-foot bladder, and the wind gusts and high water levels pushed it off the road, sending flood water careening into the village.
“We scrambled to get our equipment and what residents we could out of town, knowing that we couldn’t stop the flood water at this point,” Klein said.
Working tirelessly, Klein began receiving calls advising him and his wife to evacuate, but he was too busy assisting others.
His partner specifically ordered Klein and his wife to leave immediately, and Klein was confused as to why he was so adamant.
“We now know the reason why. The water was now almost 18-24 inches running over the road. This was one of the worst five minutes of my life: knowing that we probably wouldn’t make it past this water.”
Luckily, he and his wife managed to find safety for three days until they were able to get back into Winslow. Together with the Hooper Fire Department, the Winslow Fire Department facilitated numerous rescue attempts.
“We were able to get all the residents out of town and reported no injuries or deaths during the flood,” Klein said. “If there was a positive note to this disaster for us, it is this fact.”
From this point on, he said it has been a fight to keep the Winslow community together. Over half the properties in the village were damaged beyond repair, leaving the town with three drastic choices: 1. Stay in the current location and mitigate if necessary, 2. Take the government-sponsored buyout and leave the community, or 3. Relocate the village to a site out of the flood plain.
“We as a board decided that relocation was the only option that afforded the community the chance at survival,” Klein said. “We knew that this option wasn’t going to be popular or easy. We decided this was the best plan for the community to take.”
As of right now, Winslow faces this stern reality. Klein said he and the board are working to facilitate buyouts for residents interested, purchase land for their relocation, and help the remaining residents who intend to stay put.
“This disaster has been both personally and professionally difficult,” he said. “The scope of the loss for my family and all the families in the community probably won’t be known for a long time. I hope and fight every day to keep the community alive and progressing. We as a community will be working on this process for a long time.”
Joey Geisler's childhood home and his family farms were wiped out in Winslow, leaving he and his father no choice but to auction off their feeder calves.
Joey Geisler, a Crop Consultant at Central Valley Ag Coop out of Oakland, Nebraska, directly felt the impact of the floods in Winslow at the house he grew up in.
Geisler’s parents owned and ran a livestock farm in the heart of Winslow, with a home built in the 1870s. His grandparents also ran a livestock farm down the road in between Hooper and Winslow.
Geisler was at work on March 13 when the flood water began pouring in.
“I barely made it home from work that day, having crossed several areas of water that flooded roads,” he said. “All I could think about were my parents and their farm in Winslow.”
By March 14, what Geisler and his family had feared became a reality.
“My family’s farm was totally underwater at rates we had never seen before, nor had my ancestors seen.”
Because the ground was still frozen from the winter and snow was still melting at alarming rates, the flood water was right at freezing temperatures, and the Geislers’ cattle were stranded.
Geisler said it was tough “leaving our animals with no choice but to feel the painful cold and darkness wash across their legs as they stood there helplessly.”
“With all the roads closed and minimal time to make decisions, Mom and Dad decided to evacuated by the 16th by rescue boat, leaving behind everything they had worked for, their whole livelihood,” Geisler said.
He was trapped and unable to reach his parents’ home for four days, surrounded by flood waters. Once he was able to drive his pickup through the still flooded road to Winslow, he said all his spare time and energy was spent cleaning up both farms.
“I was just in complete shock the entire time. Everything just seemed so surreal, like I was watching a scary movie, except it was really happening,” he said. “You really couldn’t totally grasp what was happening. With all the nice green grass and healthy crops in the fields, it is still hard to believe how much water came through the Winslow and Hooper communities, and how much of our farm was under water.”
Working from sun up to sun down, the Geislers had to build makeshift fences, pen up all the cattle, salvage hay to feed them, and work to rescue items from the old house, where the foundation ended up collapsing. Geisler said he and his family couldn’t let any emotions get to them in order to fight through the tragedy.
“Even though we were hopeful for saving the old house, deep down we knew it wouldn’t work to salvage it,” Geisler said.
Erosion tarnished their driveways, forcing the family to take boats over the flood waters to feed the cattle at each farm.
Eventually, Geisler’s dad had to auction off the feeder calves.
“That was a very tough day for both Dad and I to admit we couldn’t even take care of our animals from the flood impacts,” Geisler said.
Now, the Geisler family is one of the Winslow families that plans on rebuilding instead of relocating.
“It seems we have not stopped working late nights since March though,” he said. “Even though we lost our house, fences, land and a few animals, we felt lucky to have each other, and an opportunity to rebuild back up. If we let the flood get to us, there's no way we’d be on our feet right now.”
“It changed the face of Winslow,” Geisler continued. “Many residents of Winslow have evacuated, and are planning on never coming back. We would not be where we are at without the help we had from our local friends and the great rural Nebraska community we live in. We also hope to pay it forward to other victims of natural disasters in the future.”
Help and donations are still in need for small town Nebraskans.
Non profit organizations are still working in collaboration to provide aid for those affected. Fremont Volunteer Connection is a resource to find ways to help with clean up, and Flood Aid Nebraska 2019 is a benefit being held in Fremont Sept. 28 and 29 “to raise money to give back to the Nebraska Rural Response Hotline, county roads (gravel, paving, shoulders, bridges, culverts, etc.) throughout the state, and a general fund that will be accessible to rural communities and residents via a stringent application process.”