Nebraska’s Communities Help One Another Despite Personal Struggles

Liz Uehling Ready’s phone kept beeping throughout the day.

The graduate student at the College of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln received many text messages from her mother about the rising water that closed down the road in her hometown of Uehling, Nebraska.

Her family was trapped in their house for several days as Nebraska’s catastrophic flood water kept rising.

“It was alarming because my family didn’t have access to anything. They were locked in by the water, and it’s really well known that people in Fremont were locked in by this water, and there were tons of tiny communities, like Uehling, that were locked in too,” Ready said.

But there were other repercussions. Ready’s father, Jay Uehling, lost parts of his farmland. Her mother, Sheryl, could not get to work, and Ready’s sister, Valerie did not go to school for two weeks.

Ready, who was in Lincoln when she heard the news, felt helpless knowing that her family and many other community members in her hometown had to face uncertainties about what would happen in their lives as they waited for the water to finally recede.

With a bomb cyclone and harsh winter combined that caused historical catastrophic flooding across Nebraska, the Uehlings’ story is like many other Nebraskans who quickly moved forward with their lives despite the aftermath and still yet found ways to help the recovery of nearby communities.

“I think for me that was, ‘Holy Smokes’ this is way different than it’s ever been,” Ready said.

* * *

A month after the flood occurred, uncertainties still linger for Jay Uehling, a fifth-generation farmer and the descendant of Theodore Uehling, who arrived from Germany in the 1800s and founded Uehling, 20 miles northeast of Fremont.

About 40 acres of Jay’s 2,000-acre farmland, is buried beneath tons of sand.

He still hasn’t been able to get all the sand out, and he may not be able to grow crops there.

Jay said he is working with a contractor to estimate the total damage, and now, he’s in the process of applying for assistance through the USDA’s Farm Service Agency, which provides loan programs and services.

He said his heart felt heavy, though. He’s reluctant to ask for assistance, especially those that come from taxpayers’ money.

He said he also does not spend a lot of times discussing with his family about the future of the farmland.

He shrugged and said, “I don’t know.”

Ready’s dad may not be talker, but Ready said she realized that there was a feeling of uncertainty and frustration that he’s hidden.

“I don’t want to talk him about it because it’s upsetting,” she said. “I think that there’s a lot of hidden emotions when it comes to this kind of stuff where people, especially in Nebraska, you work really hard for something when it’s literally washed away in the water, that’s just something you have to process.”

Rather than talking openly, Jay continues working on his farm every day to prepare for planting season and works to get the sand removed from the 40 acres.

Jay said he knows others have it worse than him and deserve more assistance.

Some have lost all of their farmlands or houses because of the catastrophic flood, Jay said.

“Economically, it certainly isn’t devastating for me. Some other people, I feel for them. What else can you do?” Jay said. “I hope they can recover.”

With hard work and resilience, which were the two lessons he’s learned from his father, Jay said there would be a way out.

“We’ll just keep plowing.”

* * *

In the aftermath of the flood, Sheryl Uehling, who teaches at Logan View Public Schools, turned her attention – and heart – to her students.

Some of them lived in nearby Winslow and had to be evacuated; one now lives in a recreational camper, she said.

“It’s going to take a long time for some people to recover from this,” she said. “I feel really sorry for the people.”

When the school closed on March 14, Sheryl had to wait for students’ parents to pick them up as the water slowly rose. That was when she realized that the flood was a disaster, and all of them had to get out as fast as they could.

In the time of calamity, she needed to stay alert, and she remembered that she calmly told her students, “See you tomorrow,” even though she was not sure when school would be back in session.

“I was trying to explain, you know, everything is going to be OK,” she said. “We’re going to take care of you.”

She said the same thing about two weeks later, when school resumed and she found herself in the classroom with students who were not affected by the flood and students who lost everything.

Sheryl assured the students that more help would be coming their way since she said she witnessed the Nebraskans’ willingness to help those in need.

The American Red Cross and community members had helped those affected by the flood by cleaning up damaged buildings and donating cleaning supplies.

“Everybody’s been taken care of, I mean you would not believe the help we got,” she said.

* * *

About 20 miles from Uehling, Sheryl’s sister, Shawnelle Alley, wife of the pastor at Apostolic Grace Fellowship Church, in Fremont, witnessed how Nebraskans came together to help one another.

After the levee broke because of the flood, sewer water flooded the basement of the church that left thousands of dollars of infrastructure and property damage.

Alley said her prayers had been answered when Sheryl, Jay and other volunteers from Omaha and other parts of Nebraska came together to help clean up the church.

To pay it forward, Alley and other volunteers from the Nebraska communities also gathered cleaning supplies, clothing, bedding, food and water to send to those in nearby areas, like Nickerson and North Bend, which had to be evacuated.

“I think it’s important to recognize that, A) it’s extremely humbling to be helped, and B), it’s an extreme honor to help others,” Alley said.

* * *

Ashley Mueller, disaster recovery coordinator and the extension educator of the University Nebraska-Lincoln, said she’s seen first-hand how Nebraska communities come together to help one another.

As part of Mueller’sjob, she travels to affected areas and works with educators in all 93 Nebraskan counties to prepare for floods, develop response plans, train local officials to coordinate local response efforts and mobilize volunteers to help with the aftermath.

Many people in Nebraska, according to Mueller, have a sense of duty to help those who have been directly or indirectly affected by the historic flood.

“I think that especially it is really common in Nebraska, that we find people willing to volunteer to help be on their communities because I think we see this mentality, a lot of ‘somebody has it worse off than me,’” Mueller said.

The sense of willingness to help one another during tough times has resonated with Nebraskans like the Uehlings and Alley, who like many are ready to help rebuild affected communities together.

“There’s just this idea that you know, they are family,” Mueller said. “I think that equates to a larger state level, the ‘Nebraska Strong’ as we heard, that Nebraska really is kind of this family.”

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