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Mennonites respond to historic Nebraska flooding

3.25. 2019 Written By: Sheldon C. Good

Photo: Dozens of volunteers assist with recovery from flooding in Wood River, Nebraska. Photo by Matthew Troyer-Miller.

With damage from a storm that produced blizzard conditions, ice, tornadoes, heavy rain and tropical storm-like winds across more than a dozen states in March, Mennonites are responding to needs across multiple states, especially in hard-hit areas of Nebraska.

Flood waters near peak March 15 in Wood River, Nebraska, outside the home of Wood River Mennonite Church pastor Matthew Troyer-Miller. Photo by Matthew Troyer-Miller.

At latest count, 77 of 93 Nebraska counties and four tribal areas have emergency declarations, in addition to the state of Nebraska itself declaring a state of emergency. Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts has called it “the most extensive damage our state has ever experienced.”

Damage is mainly due to flooding resulting from a powerful storm the week of March 11 known as a “bomb cyclone” because of how quickly barometric pressure readings dropped.

In Nebraska, heavy snow, ice and rain fell and then, with a sudden warmup, melting snow and ice and storm water caused the Platte and Elkhorn rivers to overflow their levees. The Spencer Dam, which sits on the Niobrara River, collapsed on March 14, destroying several bridges and causing heavy flooding downstream. At least four deaths have been attributed to the storm.

Volunteers respond to housing, agriculture damage

In the south-central Nebraska town of Wood River, home to Wood River Mennonite Church, 385 homes have been damaged. At last count, in 2016, there were 479 homes in Wood River, which sits along the Platte River.

Homes of four households from the Wood River congregation have been impacted, according to pastor Matthew Troyer-Miller, including his own. Two of the households evacuated their homes.

“Most of our church people live near the church building, which is about five miles north of town, where there was more minimal flooding,” Troyer-Miller said in a March 21 phone interview. “They’ve been able to come help out in town. Yesterday somebody tore out the carpet at my house and I don’t even know who did it. People have been so kind.”

As of March 20, driving in the Wood River area was mostly back to normal, said Troyer-Miller, who volunteers with the Wood River Fire and Rescue Department as a firefighter, EMT and chaplain. For several days people could only access parts of town using farm tractors, a fire truck or a light-armored vehicle provided by Nebraska State Patrol, he said.

In addition to homes, roads and bridges, agriculture is significantly damaged. The president of the Nebraska Farm Bureau, Steve Nelson, estimated more than $400 million in livestock losses and about $400 million in crop losses, according to a March 19 article in the Omaha World-Herald. Troyer-Miller reported farmers needing to assist birthing cows and newborn calves despite blizzard conditions, heavy rain and flooded pastures.

Volunteers from Beemer (Nebraska) Mennonite church and the local community clean out the basement of a home damaged by flooding. Photo by Lewis Miller.

Volunteers from the Wood River congregation have been joined by groups from Mennonite Disaster Service and Bethesda Mennonite Church in Henderson, Nebraska. Bethesda pastor Seth Miller said more than 40 volunteers from Bethesda have traveled the 50 miles west to Wood River since the storm hit, with more to come.

Wood River Mennonite Church hosted an ecumenical worship service March 17 as churches in town were not accessible. Amanda Bleichty, conference minister for Christian formation for Central Plains Mennonite Conference, preached at the service, and clergy from the local Methodist, Lutheran and Catholic churches participated.

“The service was billed as a service of gratitude,” Troyer-Miller said. “We’re thankful the water is receding. The town will never be the same after this. We’re thankful for our neighbors, people from near and far. Every time we’ve needed something there’s a network of people we let know and then they make stuff appear. That’s human decency.”

About 160 miles northeast of Wood River, the homes of three households from Beemer (Nebraska) Mennonite Church, experienced damage, pastor Lewis Miller said in a March 22 phone interview. All three households evacuated. One home is uninhabitable.

“Part of town was underwater due to the Elkhorn River flooding, but it’s pretty well receded, and now we’re dealing with the aftermath,” said Miller, who earlier in the day joined others from the Beemer congregation and local community in a “bucket brigade” to clean out a damaged home. “There’s good generosity and support locally. This gives new meaning to living in the heartland, with the outpouring of support we’ve seen.”

MDS working on cleanup, assessments

Mennonite Disaster Service is monitoring the situation in Nebraska and other states, and local MDS volunteers are responding with cleanup crews across the state. The volunteers have been mucking out homes and removing damaged possessions in multiple locations in Nebraska, said Jeff Koller, MDS regional operations coordinator in a phone interview March 21.

“One of the big problems people are having is drawing water out of the basements,” Koller said. “If you remove water from a basement too quickly, the outside pressure collapses the walls inward. This can happen anywhere but is amplified in this area by the sandy soil.”

Farmers have lost entire bins of soybeans, which often aren’t insured, Koller reported. “About 20 miles back, there was a farmer with a tractor extracting dead cows from a field,” said Koller, who spoke while traveling in a van across Nebraska to assess needs. “There was a pile of 20 or more animals beside the road, and he’s still retrieving them. That brings it home pretty quickly.”

Koller is concerned that as snow and ice continue to melt, flooding will expand to Kansas, Iowa, Missouri and South Dakota. “I was in South Dakota yesterday driving in snow drifts taller than my van,” he said. “That all feeds into the Missouri River watershed. The coming weeks and months are going to be difficult.”

David Boshart, executive conference minister for Central Plains Mennonite Conference, said in a March 21 email that no MC USA congregations in Iowa have been impacted by flooding so far. Current flooding in Iowa is on the western side of the state, in areas surrounding the Missouri River, along the border with Nebraska. All MC USA congregations in Iowa are farther east.

In Iowa, 42 counties have issued emergency declarations.

“This is what you read about in history books, and it’s happening,” said Kevin King, executive director of MDS, in a March 21 phone interview, adding that more volunteers are needed. “People are getting hit in all directions. We’ll be there for the long haul. A year or two from now I imagine we’ll still be doing long-term recovery in Nebraska.”

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