Special to the Daily News
It wasn’t until he was sitting in the back of the Nebraska National Guard truck with flood water rushing by that the Rev. Matt Gilmore seriously started to worry about his family’s safety.
For most of the morning, the March 14 flood had been primarily a curiosity and a nuisance as it surrounded the Gilmores’ house near the intersection of Highways 275 and 24 and sent a mix of sewer and flood water rushing into the basement.
The worst that Gilmore said he thought would happen would be flooding in the basement and lower level of the 119-year-old farmhouse they had renovated. But when authorities told him that they were worried the levees in town might break, Gilmore, who is the senior pastor at Northern Heights Baptist Church in Norfolk, decided it would be best that his wife, Amanda, and their eight children — ages 4 to 17 — quickly get to higher ground.
So at about 11 a.m. that day, family members climbed aboard the military truck to make a mile trek across their washed-out lane and flooded highways.
Matt had previously watched large metal storage containers float across the highway from the nearby ABC Storage, so he knew the rescue might be difficult.
So did the rescuers, who told Matt they had problems navigating the family’s lane. After loading everyone inside, the rescuers left open a part of the truck’s tarp and told the family what to do should the truck capsize: Swim to the nearest tree or fence post and hold on until help arrives.
And they told the Gilmores something even more frightening: There were only three life jackets in the truck.
Matt said he remembers initially thinking, “OK, how I am going to pick which kid gets these?” Then he quickly gave the jackets to the youngest: Elizabeth, 4, Micah, 11 and Joshua, 12.
With everyone onboard, the truck plowed through the swiftly moving current, which was as high as the truck’s wheel wells. It made it through the most dangerous part — the 200 yards of washed-out lane — and ended up less than a mile away at Crown Road.
“I was worried for about 60 seconds,” Matt said. “It took awhile to turn the corner, but 30 seconds later we were stopped and on dry ground.”
Friends from Stanton met the family there to take them to their home.
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That was the happy ending of a six-hour ordeal that started at 5 a.m., when Matt heard an unusual alarm going off in the distance. When he looked outside, he saw white-capped waves of water close to their house, which is about 100 yards away from a channel of the Elkhorn River.
He woke up his wife, Amanda, and then the kids, and they all started moving furniture, toys and storage items from the basement to the higher levels of the house.
That’s when Matt found water spewing from a septic cleanout cap. The children took turns forcing the cap to stay on as a friend explained to Matt via FaceTime how to build a temporary fix by using a two-by-four and screws to hold the cap in place. Matt placed a plastic garbage can under the cap to catch any water than might seep through.
The job would have been easier, Matt noted, had their lumber pile not been floating away from the home at the time.
In between the moving of household items and the repair, the kids played a card game, prayed, sang hymns and watched out the window as landmarks in the yard were swallowed up by the water.
Matt and Amanda had been in periodic contact with emergency personnel since 8 a.m., and when they learned about the National Guard truck heading their way, everyone quickly packed a bag.
* * *
Once his family was settled in Stanton, Matt set out to help others.
He worked with his church staff to open up Northern Heights for evacuees. And when a staff member mentioned that none of the shelters was allowing animals, Matt suggested they encourage people with pets to come to the church.
Ultimately, 80 people, 14 dogs, two cats and a bird sought refuge there.
But Matt was only getting started.
Five days later, he once again found himself in a water-logged basement, but this time it was someone else’s. He and 45 church members launched a relief effort to Lynch, where, over the course of several days, they hauled mud and water out of basements and stripped out soggy drywall and flooring in 40 homes. He estimated that an additional 20 of the 130 houses in the hard-hit town need serious repairs.
The volunteers were deeply affected by what they saw in Lynch, Matt said, and they want to return soon to provide more help.
“Everybody had the same reaction,” he said. “They were overwhelmed by the sense of loss.”
* * *
The Gilmores said they have learned much from their experiences.
“You come face-to-face with how fragile life is,” Matt said. “And how some things are here today and then gone tomorrow. And that’s sort of reality.
“And then when you see what is happening in Lynch, you realize that, man, life is more than material stuff. You go back to your basics. Your faith and your family. What’s really important.”
They also feel a sense of gratitude.
“We have what we have, and if we don’t have what we used to have, we’re OK because we still have the things that matter most,” Matt said.
Daughter Emma, 14, said she now has a greater understanding of what others in similar disasters are going through or have gone through. And she’s appreciative of the people who have provided support.
“It was just cool that our community and all our friends were there to help when we needed it,” she said.
* * *
The Gilmores were able to return home four nights and five days after they evacuated.
Matt feared the worst.
“When I left, I thought this place was toast,” he said.
But what they found seemed miraculous to them. The house appeared to have been protected by a foot-wide moat of dry land around all four sides. In the basement, the garbage can used to catch the septic water was an inch from overflowing.
Aside from the lane being swept away, everything was OK.
The family was blessed by God, Amanda said.
Every Tuesday, he said, a friend texts him a Bible verse. Two days before the flood, his friend sent this verse from Isaiah 43:2:
“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they will not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched, nor will the flame burn you.”