Flooding, blizzard disrupted the lives of thousands of Nebraska students

Flooding, blizzard disrupted the lives of thousands of Nebraska students
Interstate 29 southbound at mile marker 3 in Iowa (Iowa State Patrol)

All the Nebraska schools closed because of the recent flooding have reopened, state officials said Thursday, but not before disrupting the lives of thousands of students at almost 200 schools.

The North Bend Central Public Schools, which returned to school Wednesday, was the last school district to resume classes, according to the Nebraska Department of Education.

The Logan View Public Schools, the Douglas County West Community Schools and the Boyd County Schools all returned to school Monday.

“Did all students return? I doubt it,” department spokesman David Jespersen said. “But the school is open, and there are classes.”

Trying to understand how the recent flooding — and, in western Nebraska, the recent blizzard — affected Nebraska schools, the department sent out a survey to the 244 public school districts in the state.

Only 75 percent of the districts have responded so far. Of the districts that responded, 65 reported closing one or more schools because of floodwaters or the blizzard.

The closures affected 34,684 students in 196 schools, according to the department.

Add that missed classroom time to earlier snow days, and the time starts to add up.

“I think everybody can now evaluate where they’re at and what’s next,” Jespersen said.

The state requires 1,032 hours of instructional time for students in elementary school through eighth grade and 1,080 hours for high school students.

Jespersen said there is a waiver available if superintendents don’t think that their districts will hit the required hours.

The waiver would first have to be approved by a district’s school board before going to Nebraska Commissioner of Education Matt Blomstedt. Blomstedt would make a recommendation to the State Board of Education, which would then vote on the request.

It’s rare, Jespersen said, for any district to ask for a waiver. And no one at the department can recall a time when multiple districts might have needed to put in such a request, he said.

Despite missed class time, it’s still academic test season for students across the state.

Nebraska juniors will take the ACT on April 2, although there’s an option to make up the test on April 24.

State academic testing, which is done on computers, started March 18 and goes until May 3.

Jespersen said the state is keeping the test schedule in place but will work with districts if there are problems with Wi-Fi or if test supplies didn’t get to districts because of the flooding.

Douglas County West Community Schools Superintendent Melissa Poloncic said that attendance on Monday was good and that many students were happy to be back.

Students who are without a permanent home or are living with others because of the flooding will automatically be eligible for free meals for the remainder of the school year, Poloncic tweeted Thursday.

The floodwaters have disrupted the lives of so many families, she said, that it makes the baseball team’s victory on Monday something to celebrate: “Little things you take for granted we sure are glad to get back to.”

Nebraska Department of Transportation opens more flood-damaged roads

The Nebraska Department of Transportation said Friday that, following inspections and repairs, the following highways closed by flooding are now open to traffic:

» Highway 14 is open between Verdigre and the Standing Bear Bridge. Width restriction of 10 feet on the bridge just south of Niobrara on one lane while work continues on the bridge.

» Highway 30 Columbus and Silver Creek.

» Highway 81 is now open to all traffic while under construction. Traffic will be head-to-head and a 12-foot width restriction is in place while work continues. All traffic, including heavy trucks and semi-truck traffic is advised to follow the posted speed-limit in the construction zone, especially where lane cross-overs are present.

Please remember some local and county roads may still remain impassible.

More road repairs starting

The department also announced it is working on these emergency projects in central Nebraska:

» Highway 14: Paulsen Inc. from Cozad, Nebraska, and Van Kirk Brothers Contracting from Sutton,Nebraska, has been awarded the contract to start immediate repairs to the sections of Highway 14 north and south of Fullerton. Work includes repair to the road to restore immediate connectivity. Weather depending, work is anticipated to conclude north of Fullerton by April 10. The remaining portion south of Fullerton is anticipated to be completed by April 17, again depending on weather.

» Highway 22 between Highway 281 and Genoa will remain closed until repairs are completed north of Fullerton to Highway 14.

» Highway 39: Paulsen Inc. from Cozad, Nebraska and Van Kirk Brothers Contracting from Sutton, Nebraska, has been awarded the contract to Starting immediate repairs to sections the roadway sections of Highway 39. Work includes repairing roadways washed out by the flood. NDOT is in the process of designing a bridge to replace the damaged bridge south of the Loop River. Once design work has been completed, a new contract for the bridge will be let for construction. Highway 39 between Highway 30 and the junction of Highway 39 and Highway 22 will remain closed until all repairs, including bridge replacement, are complete.

Heavy truck and semi-truck traffic are advised to only take marked detours and avoid county roads in these areas. Many of the county roads are unable to support semi-truck traffic.

NDOT will continue to provide detours for each bridge that has either been washed out or requires repair through 511.nebraska.gov.

Disaster relief fund for hospital workers

The Nebraska Hospital Association has established a disaster relief fund to assist hospital employees impacted by the recent floods in the state.

The association estimated that more than 500 employees had been affected by the natural disasters that have struck the state, based on information gathered from member hospitals by late this week. The number could grow.

Hospital and health system employees, association officials said, in many cases have been the unsung heroes that have kept hospital doors open during the disaster. Some were temporarily marooned as several communities — notably, Norfolk, Columbus and Fremont — became islands, with routes in and out cut off by flooding.

The Nebraska association has committed $75,000 to the relief fund. The American Hospital Association has pledged an additional $25,000.

The Nebraska association will be working with the national organization and other state associations and partners to collect additional donations.

Checks can be written to the association’s nonprofit, charitable arm, NHAREF, 3255 Salt Creek Circle, Suite 100, Lincoln, Nebraska 68504. To donate electronically, contact Barb Jablonski at bjablonski@nebraskahospitals.org or (402) 742-8163.

Game and Parks working proactively to assess conditions at state park areas

LINCOLN, Neb. – While most state park areas across the state are open, some state parks, state historical parks, state recreation areas and wildlife management areas located along rivers and streams in eastern and central Nebraska remained temporarily closed following recent flooding.

Game and Parks staff have been working diligently to assess the damage and develop recovery plans for affected areas. A list of parks that are closed, partially closed or accessible only by alternate route is available on the Commission’s website at OutdoorNebraska.org/weatherclosures. Visitors to the page will also find a list of park areas unaffected by flooding.

Staff have been proactively assessing conditions at state park and recreation areas. Safety and the serviceability of the facilities is the agency’s main priority before access to temporarily closed areas will be allowed. Game and Parks is optimistic that portions of affected areas will be open in the near future.

The Cowboy Trail from Norfolk to Valentine will remain closed until repairs can be made to the trail surface and bridges. The public is advised to stay off the trail until it has reopened.

Access to some wildlife management areas may be difficult because county roads and bridges have been washed out in some areas. For information on specific wildlife management areas, contact your local Game and Parks district office. Contact information is available online at OutdoorNebraska.org/locations.

Questions about specific park closures should be directed to Game and Parks headquarters at 402-471-0641.

Douglas County jail worker helps flood-stricken colleague he’s only met a couple of times

“If you are blessed, you are called to be a blessing.”

John Deases called on this philosophy to explain what motivated him to help a co-worker he barely knew.

Deases is a Douglas County Sheriff’s sergeant who has worked at the county jail for 20 years. Yasser Gonzales is a relatively new employee at the jail. Deases had worked with Gonzales only once when he learned his colleague had lost everything to flooding in Bellevue.

The family had only a couple of hours to grab whatever they could and get out of their house, said Kelley Deases, John’s wife, who sent his name to The World-Herald so he could be recognized as a flood hero.

Deases got busy. He reached out to Gonzales to see if he was OK, and asked how to help.

“He begins to tell me that everything was a loss. He sent a picture of his house and that was what really broke my heart,” John Deases said. “He said he has to be strong but this is the hardest thing he’s ever had to go through.”

After the floodwaters came, Gonzales, his wife and their three kids, ages 5, 9 and 16, were living with his mom in one room of her house.

Not sure if the Gonzales family’s plight was common knowledge among colleagues, Deases notified jail director Michael Myers about their needs.

Within a couple hours, signs seeking clothes, including the sizes of family members, went up throughout the workplace. John and Kelley stuffed two bags full of nice clothing for the effort.

A couple of days later, a corridor at the jail was filled with boxes of clothes and other items. Many co-workers also donated gift cards.

Deases also arranged for the employee benevolence fund so Gonzales could receive the standard gift of $200 and offered the family free lodging in a rental property he owns.

“I began to think outside the box. If I were in his shoes, what would I need,” Deases said.

He nominated Gonzales to receive funding from the congregation at Calvary Christian Church, where he and Kelley are members, through a weekly one-for-one giving challenge, and contacted the American Red Cross shelter at the church to see what services were available.

Kelley Deases said her family is used to volunteering and donating through Calvary and the Heartland Hope Mission.

But, she said, “John wanted to reach out to a specific family, help meet their urgent needs and be there for them for the long haul.”

Bartender donates tips for flood relief

Courtney McGann is lucky enough that none of her friends or family were affected by this month’s devastating floods. Still, she knew she wanted to help.

Last week, the part-time bartender at LIV Lounge, 2279 S. 67th St., decided she would donate all her tips from her upcoming Saturday shift to flood relief efforts. She had hoped to raise $500, and with some help from another bartender and a barback, she met her goal.

The owners of LIV Lounge matched McGann’s donation dollar-for-dollar, sending in $1,000 to the American Red Cross.

“It felt great. I definitely thought it went over really well,” McGann said. “It was a little bit that ended up making a big difference when it all came together.”

Fremont students help city with flood; now it’s their time to get pampered for prom

Fremont High School held its first prom pampering day last year.

This year, teacher Velyda Demuth says, students need it more than ever after floodwaters overwhelmed the city. About 100 students are still displaced.

“There are a lot of girls who are hurting this year,’’ Demuth says.

Pampering includes hair, makeup and nails. All products are provided.

Teachers, professional hair and makeup artists, parents and church members will be doing the transformations. Demuth said her daughter, Naiyah Farmer, even plans to come up again from Texas to help.

The pampering day is set for April 27 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Fremont Alliance Church. That’s the day of Fremont’s prom, but girls from other schools are welcome. Just make a reservation by calling 402-727-3050.

Demuth said one girl last year threw her arms in the air and said, “I feel like a queen.”

“Which is exactly what we wanted,’’ she said.

Several prom dresses have been donated to the school. Demuth said they’re asking that dresses are somewhat new, and aren’t stained or damaged.

They are also seeking suits and prom apparel in good condition for the boys in the school of 1,500.

Demuth said students helped save her home in the southeast part of Fremont when a levee broke. They were among hundreds of people who filled sandbags to hold back the water.

“That was an unbelievable community effort,’’ she said.

The students continue to help. The track team was among those setting up cots at a shelter in the old J.C. Penney store.

“Our students have been phenomenal,’’ Demuth said. “Every place you have a need, whether it’s unloading trucks or sorting clothing or food, we have middle school and high school kids working. Even kids who were displaced. It’s just amazing.’’

DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge closed by flooding, but steamboat museum stays dry

Damage to roads caused by Missouri River floodwaters forced the closure of the DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge, but its buildings are safe, an official said Thursday.

“It’s not like 2011, when we had to move the (Steamboat Bertrand) artifacts out,” said Tom Cox, director of the refuge. “We have not had to evacuate the visitor center or our headquarters building. The only significant damage has been to our roads.”

The refuge will remain closed until engineers are able to assess the damage.

Officials also want to monitor the spring surge on the river, Cox said, while staff members continue their work.

During the 2011 flood, the unearthed treasures from the steamboat were hurriedly packed and shipped to higher ground. It took about three years for them to return to display.

There were no casualties when the steamer hit a snag and sank on April 1, 1865, in 8 feet of water near what is now Missouri Valley, Iowa. The crew put down the gangplank, and everyone walked to shore .

Over the years, the boat sank into the mud and all but disappeared until a pair of treasure hunters unearthed it in the 1960s. The mud and pressure had preserved enough of the items so well that the federal government saved, cleaned and restored almost everything from canned goods to children’s toys to cannonballs.

The Bertrand exhibit is said to be the largest array of Civil War-era items anywhere. The items are displayed behind museum glass in a climate-controlled wing of the visitor center.

Valley marathon canceled due to flood damage

Organizers of a new Omaha area marathon have canceled the race because of a flood-damaged course.

The Valley 7 Lakes Marathon, which would include half and full marathon distances, was set for April 27 in Valley. The western Douglas County city experienced extensive flood damage earlier this month.

Organizers said they’re unable to host the event due to poor road conditions caused by high-standing water and washed-away roads along the course.

The race will be back next year on April 25, said race director Will Lindgren.

“We looked at every possible way to get the runners through the course, but there’s no way to do it for this year,” Lindgren said. “We looked at rescheduling, but we know our preferred date is spring.”

Lindgren said he’s been in touch with the 310 runners who had registered for the event. Some have requested refunds, some have donated their entry fees to next year’s race and others have accepted waived entry fees for next year’s event, Lindgren said.