Special to the Daily News
Troy Uhlir’s phone started ringing early in the afternoon on March 13.
People, mostly county officials, were calling the Madison County commissioner about the roads, bridges and infrastructure that already had been or could be affected by the flood.
His phone has been ringing ever since.
Now, with less than five months of experience on the job, Uhlir finds himself — along with his fellow commissioners — at the center of one of Madison County’s worst natural disasters.
The callers shared lots of news and information. Impassable roads. Washouts. Crews working around the clock. There was so much damage the county ran out of barricades.
The total damage has been preliminarily estimated at $20 million, but few will be surprised if it turns out to be much more than that.
“This thing happening — it’s my biggest learning curve; things that I wouldn’t even have to deal with in four years if we didn’t have an event like this,” he said. “I’m having to learn and find out: What are the steps? How do we get reimbursed? Who’s going to help us?”
But Uhlir is up for the challenge.
The Battle Creek native said he has never been one to get overwhelmed. He likes to tackle obstacles by being assertive and being a problem-solver. Uhlir said he’s also trying to learn as much as he can from his fellow county officials here and elsewhere.
He credits his solution-driven approach to his life experiences. Uhlir said he watched his father, a farmer, go broke and file for bankruptcy. Uhlir began working at Burger King at the age of 14. In 1987, he injured a knee and lost a spot on the University of Nebraska football team.
“I really feel some of that has helped me … because you learn how to manage; you learn how to prioritize and know to multi-task, so you fill the void when you need to fill the void,” he said. “You need to keep things moving.”
Uhlir has tried to share his can-do attitude with county maintenance crews to help encourage them as they work overtime to repair roads.
His advice: “Just don’t quit. We will get through this. One day at a time. One thing at a time. Prioritize. Take today and do what we can do today. Don’t get too ahead of ourselves that we become overwhelmed. “
That doesn’t mean Uhlir hasn’t been discouraged. He admits he’s been frustrated by the time it takes to compile required information because county workers have to track it manually.
“There are some things that I think, technology-wise, are out there and systems that would better help us in tracking man-hours, equipment hours and some of those things rather than the paper form. Because right now … it’s really a paperwork nightmare,” he said.
Uhlir said he is used to a faster pace, coming from the business world. He owns two Burger King franchises, a drive-in coffee shop and an inflatable bounce house rental service.
But as an elected leader, Uhlir said, he knows he needs to stay positive, focused and organized.
Because there are many challenges ahead.
One of the biggest is how county officials can find ways to pay for the flood-related damage without raising property taxes, he said. That’s why he and other county officials have been busy preparing applications for aid through both the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Uhlir said he feels bad for residents and wants to work hard to find an equitable solution “because I know at some point, there’s going to be burden put back on them to help fund what we have to do to fix this.”
The county will continue to work hard to repair as many roads as quickly as possible, Uhlir said, but the spring weather will be a big factor.
Uhlir said he also strives to communicate with the public, through the Daily News, local radio stations and his personal social media accounts to update residents on road conditions and to inform them to drive carefully around the affected areas.
“Communication is key,” he said. “I think It’s very important for people to understand what’s going on and what we’re doing.”
Overall, Uhlir said, he’s been most impressed with the resilience of the people of Madison County — and thankful for the patience and trust residents have given him and the county crews as they work to repair the roads.
Of all the phone calls Uhlir has received since March 13, none has been from people angry about damaged roads, he said. Most have been from people calling out of genuine concern to update him on road conditions so that motorists can avoid dangerous areas.
“I’m really proud in how our community stepped up as a whole and how our county stepped up as a whole,” he said. “It’s nice to see that there’s empathy from people in the county and even in the community.”