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'It takes a long time': Recovery after 2019 flood may take until end of year, or longer, social agencies say

'It takes a long time': Recovery after 2019 flood may take until end of year, or longer, social agencies say

From the One year ago: Anniversary coverage of the July 2019 flood series
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Western Inn South cleanup (copy)

Crews worked Tuesday, July 16, 2019 loading ruined mattresses at Western Inn South at 510 Third Ave. to remove them from the property.

KEARNEY — Give it to somebody else.

That’s what social service agencies heard repeatedly as they offered funds to victims after the flood that happened a year ago today.

“I had grown men sit in my office and bawl. They had never had to ask for help before,” said Lisa Lieth, case manager at the Salvation Army at 1917 Central Ave. “I would say, ‘Don’t be ashamed. That’s why we’re here.’”

But one year later, many property owners have not finished repairs, and social service agencies have had to learn to cope, too.

“None of us believed this would be long term,” said Nikki Erickson, executive director of the United Way of the Kearney Area. “We got donations. We figured we’d get a list of who needs money and it would be done, but that is not how these things happen.

Nikki Erickson

Nikki Erickson

“The reality is it takes a long time to go through the recovery process. We hope to finish by Dec. 31, but we will be here as long as it takes,” she said.

KADRG formed

A nonprofit, the Kearney Area Long-term Disaster Recovery Group, was formed in October because the flood recovery workload was so overwhelming that social agencies and nonprofits couldn’t get their regular tasks completed.

The KADRG, which includes 12 people from nonprofits, provides funds and guidance to flood victims. It is funded by a 12-month grant that runs from Jan. 1 through Dec. 31.

Its executive committee, which gathers virtually on a weekly basis, includes Judi Sicker, president and executive director of the Kearney Area Community Foundation, its chair; Erickson, vice chair; Lieth, secretary, and Tammy Jeffs, community service director at the Community Action Partnership of Mid-Nebraska, treasurer. They meet with the eight other members monthly.

It is led by disaster recovery outreach coordinator Brooke Johnson; two part-time advocates, Suzanne Davis and Laura Jeppesen, who work directly with flood victims, and a translator who assists victims who speak Spanish.

Reaching out

First, KADRG collected names and phone numbers of those who needed help from United Way, the Red Cross and the Multi-Agency Resource Center events held at the Salvation Army and University of Nebraska at Kearney shortly after the flood. FEMA had a list of names, too.

The total: 714 names.

Johnson and her team called every one of them. Assistance was both economic and emotional because counseling was available, too.

“The process is going really well, but recovery takes a long time,” Johnson said. Even finding receipts for repairs has become a chore for some. “It’s been a rough year on these families. They’re tired of talking about it, tired of dealing with it. They are worn out and they want to move on,” she said.

Two phases

KADRG has operated in two phases.

In the first phase, it gave a check of roughly $700 each to flood victims.

The second phase is ongoing. Extreme losses have been assessed and matched against receipts for repairs. Checks are being sent out, but “not everybody has submitted receipts,” Erickson said. “Or they worried about more flooding this summer. People were nervous about spending thousands of dollars to repair basements and foundations and walls until they felt confident they were out of danger.”

With a hot, dry summer so far, the group is encouraging people to finish repairs. It has set an Aug. 31 deadline for people to submit receipts for reimbursement.

“People are floored by the assistance we’ve been able to provide,” Johnson said. The funds came entirely from public donations to agencies such as United Way, the Kearney Area Community Foundation Disaster Relief Fund and others.

Erickson said any leftover money will assist people who suffered catastrophic losses in the flood.

“Our advocates are fantastic. Sometimes it is hard to make sense of lots of receipts. Sometimes they just listen to the victims’ stories. We have been so fortunate to have grant assistance that allowed us to hire them,” Erickson said.

Salvation Army assistance

Over at the Salvation Army, Lieth is astonished at the exorbitant expense of some repairs.

“When I see tens of thousands of dollars, a retired person may not have that kind of money,” she said.

Lisa Lieth

Lisa Lieth

Right after the disaster, the Salvation Army took applications from people who needed assistance. It distributed free cleaning kits, including mops, brooms, buckets, hygiene kits and bleach, to anyone who asked. It served a free lunch for about three weeks with the food provided by community organizations.

“People were coming in all the time. They still didn’t have a place to eat or cook. The University of Nebraska at Kearney took in travelers stranded when hotels flooded down by I-80, but they didn’t realize there were so many locals who didn’t have a place to stay,” Lieth said.

She has no financial figures to show how much assistance the Salvation Army provided, “but we were blessed with donations,” she said.

COVID-19 impact

Eight months after the flood, COVID-19 pandemic roared in, slowing repairs for many people because contractors could not go into private homes. Now, with the clock ticking, it’s difficult for some people to even get repairs scheduled.

“So many people act like Nebraskans. They say, ‘Yes, I have flood damage, but I’ll be all right. You give that money to somebody else,” Erickson said.

“We tell them, ‘These dollars were donated by individuals who want to help you. It won’t pay for 100 percent, but it will make a difference,” she said. “It feels great to make phone calls telling people they will get help. It can bring grown men to tears. They are so grateful to realize that somebody cared about them. Donors make all this possible.”

Emotional toll, too

Lieth said the emotional fallout from the flood “is just now hitting a lot of folks. It didn’t hit them at the beginning; they were too busy cleaning and repairing. Finally, when they’ve done as much as they can and they take a minute to breathe, that’s when they cry,” she said.

She said reading the 300 applications for help taught her that “empathetic listening has value and can calm harried people.”

“Sometimes, folks just wanted to talk about what happened. Lending an empathetic ear can really make a difference. Everyone had the same flood, but everyone had different experiences,” she said.

Lieth also was reawakened to the giving, selfless spirit of Kearney’s people.

“The people stranded in hotels left Kearney with a fond memory. We got letters thanking us for taking them in. I know we live in a generous community, but after the flood, people were all so giving. You can’t buy an attribute like that.”

maryjane.skala@kearneyhub.com

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