When the COVID-19 pandemic descended on the world in March 2020, Nebraska and its neighboring states already had been reeling for a year from a previous, record-setting, climate disaster.
In mid-March 2019, Winter Storm Ulmer combined heavy snow and rain with extreme cold, which triggered unprecedented flooding. Four people died in Nebraska, hundreds of millions worth of homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed and thousands of acres of farm ground damaged. Hundreds of miles of state highways needed repairs, drinking water and wastewater systems were knocked offline and dams and levees were wiped out.
It’s now called one of the costliest inland floods in U.S. history. Federal authorities estimate the damage in Nebraska alone at $2.6 billion.
The University of Nebraska system mobilized to provide support to the 84 counties, 104 cities and five tribal nations that were declared disaster areas by state and federal government. Along with first responders, the National Guard and countless volunteers, Nebraska Extension and the Nebraska Public Policy Center were on the front lines, helping individuals, businesses, agricultural producers and governmental entities navigate the confusion and chaos left by the floods.
Additionally, nearly 50 students in 2019 and 2020 participated in flood serviceships, funded through Rural Prosperity Nebraska, that enabled them to work side-by-side with community leaders and Extension educators. Approximately 50 others served flood-stricken communities as part of learning in journalism, community planning and engineering classes.
Nebraska’s strong network of county-based Extension professionals, with hundreds spread out in county offices across the state, made Extension’s response faster and more effective.
“County-based Extension is about neighbors helping neighbors,” said Nebraska Extension Dean and Director Charlie Stoltenow, who stepped into the role in January. “To do this kind of work and to be able to have a positive impact on your neighbors and your community – this is why people go into Extension in the first place, to make a difference.”
The university continues to assist Nebraskans impacted by the flood, including helping prepare for future disasters.
“There are many who are back to a sense of normalcy following the flood,” said Chris Schroeder, who manages long-term recovery efforts for the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency. “But there are many who are not, there are communities that still are not. That’s one of the realities of disaster events, especially one of the magnitude of the 2019 flood.”
Schroeder said Nebraska Extension was integral to the flood response and will continue to be a partner in long-term recovery, which could extend years into the future before all flood victims can truly say they’ve reached a “new normal.”
Disaster preparation is a key part of recovery, because experts say the unusual conditions that led to the flooding are examples of greater climate variability being witnessed in recent years.
“Nebraska’s weather is inherently variable and extreme,” State Climatologist Martha Shulski, a member of the faculty with UNL’s School of Natural Resources, said recently. “What we must be prepared for, however, is an amplification of our current climate conditions. Plan for greater variability, worse extremes and going quickly from one extreme to another.”
In 2019, at least 100 Nebraska Extension faculty and staff helped residents with removal of contaminated debris, addressing post-flooding mold in their homes, restoration of damaged farm ground, livestock carcass disposal and disaster assistance paperwork. They connected eligible Nebraskans with disaster nutrition assistance programs like D-SNAP and provided information about choosing contractors. Along with partner organizations, Extension worked with, and helped coordinate the many volunteers and donors who eagerly wanted to help.
“They didn’t know what a time clock was,” said Fullerton, Nebraska, farmer Craig Frenzen, who credited several Extension educators in his region for coordinating donations of livestock feed, pharmaceuticals, hay and fencing supplies that came in from across the country, and providing advice on restoring his farm ground. Craig Frenzen’s post-flood story was featured in a video made by his daughter, Emily, an agricultural communications major, that has been aired during the Nebraska State Fair.
“When one is mentally and physically stressed from an event like this, it’s good to see Extension at our beck and call to help us crawl back out of this hole,” he added.
Chuck Hibberd, now retired dean of extension at Nebraska, said he is proud of the university’s response to the flooding.
“We jumped in and did things that mattered,” he said recently.
Soni Cochran, interim disaster education coordinator for Nebraska Extension, said the COVID pandemic created additional challenges for residents who were trying to rebuild their lives after the 2019 disasters. Extension continues to work closely with community partners to strategize and provide resources focused on mental well-being. These efforts also encourage social supports to reach out to youth, farmers and livestock producers, and other community members.
“The 2019 disaster was unlike any other in its scale,” she said. “But experiences and lessons learned will help strengthen our resilience. It is important to have systems and plans in place so we can prepare, withstand and recover from future hazardous events.”
Cochran said one outcome of the 2019 disaster was the Nebraska Extension Disaster Education Network, or Nebraska EDEN, team. It’s a statewide organization of Extension faculty and staff with expertise in agriculture, families, youth development, health and wellness, community environment and community development. It is affiliated with similar teams on the regional and national level and strengthens Extension’s capacity to help Nebraskans prepare for and recover from disasters.
Extension also participates in Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD), a coalition of volunteer groups and community organizations created to coordinate disaster response, avoid unnecessary duplication of effort, train volunteers and provide information about services available to disaster survivors.
4-H programs are under development for middle schoolers and high schoolers who are interested in safety, disaster preparedness and response, leadership and service. Nebraska Extension’s “Read for Resilience” program identified storybooks and created storybook guides that can help children cope with their feelings following a major stressor like a disaster event.
“The past few years have been especially challenging for rural Nebraskans,”Cochran said. “Folks hesitate to reach out if they are struggling to cope. The stigma surrounding mental health is a barrier for getting help when people need it most. For even the hardiest of souls, the strain on our mental well-being can be overwhelming that can have the potential for disastrous consequences, including the risk for suicide.”
A team of Extension educators and specialists, along with an AmeriCorps VISTA member, initiated the “Wellness in Tough Times” project and an accompanying toolkit.
A pilot project involved seven rural communities across Nebraska that were impacted by the 2019 disasters and COVID pandemic. Recently completed, the Wellness in Tough Times pilot project focused on empowering and strengthening the resiliency of individuals and families in communities by promoting opportunities to help reduce the stigma around mental health.
Extension also is launching a “Weather Ready Farms” pilot project that will certify farms on their disaster preparedness.
The university’s involvement in disaster preparedness predates the 2019 flooding, initiated when Hibberd became dean of Extension in 2014.
Ashley Mueller, a former statewide extension educator and disaster education coordinator based in Dodge County, was hired to develop a new program on extreme weather and disasters, about the time twin tornadoes hit Pilger, Nebraska, killing two people and injuring 20 others in June 2014.
“We needed to figure out what disaster education looks like in Nebraska,” she said. “So that when something like this happened – of a magnitude I never expected – we could respond.”
Working with Mark Robertson, UNL’s emergency management director, her task was to forge a link between Extension and government emergency management planners across the state. One of the programs she taught was on managing volunteers during a disaster.
After 25,000 residents of Fremont, where she lived, were cut off by flooding surrounding the city, Mueller was called in by the county emergency manager to set up a reception center for volunteers. The typical volunteer agencies, like American Red Cross, AmeriCorps and the Salvation Army, had no way to get into the city, while Fremont residents were eager to help.
A volunteer reception center is an important part of a disaster response, Mueller explained. Not only does it ensure that volunteers are deployed safely to where they are most needed, it tracks volunteer work hours that can be used to qualify for federal disaster aid.
Her husband, Nathan, also an Extension educator, got a separate call for his agricultural expertise for emergency operations with food accessibility and livestock care, including disposing of carcasses of drowned animals.
Ashley Mueller worked nearly around the clock for five days at the center, registering nearly 1,000 Fremont residents as volunteers, before Robertson and three others were flown in by Blackhawk helicopter to relieve her and others. Mueller and Robertson had been in constant contact since the flooding began, and the Fremont assignment came to Robertson from the state Emergency Operations Center because of his training in emergency response procedures.
“We were a state team, called in at the request of the County Commissioners to relieve people who had been working day and night,” he recalled.
The team instituted an incident command system that helped Fremont re-establish links to food and fuel supply chains and get the roads reopened.
“Getting the roads open that was our first success and our first big objective,” Robertson said. “The logistics guy knew the questions to ask and the calls to make. It’s just a matter of getting the process down.”
Meanwhile, Extension educator Sandra Barrera, based in Grand Island, started getting phone calls asking for Spanish-language information for Latino residents who were flooded out of rental homes and mobile homes along the Wood River in central Nebraska.
To her surprise, none were readily available. She undertook the task of developing materials on flood cleanup, cleaning mold, applying for disaster assistance and the like. Eventually, two students in the flood serviceship program were placed in her office to help her prepare multiple language information and Power Point presentations
“In the future, the next time we have the same thing, we have the materials, we’re doing training about it, we have something,” she said. “For example, right now I have to talk about tornadoes. We have people from Cuba here. They know about hurricanes, but they don’t know anything about tornadoes.”
She’s developed materials about insurance and “everything you need to know” about disasters for owners of small businesses like boutiques and grocery stores. She’s distributed 200 flood-proof plastic bags designed to hold important papers –driver licenses, passports, Social Security cards, prescriptions and the like.
Brad Schick, a beef systems Extension educator based in Nance County, helped Frenzen and other farmers recover from the flood.
“Craig has ground where the Cedar River joins up with the Loup just east of Fullerton,” Schick said. “He had literally tons and tons of debris and sand covering his fields and his pastures as well. Under Corps of Engineers rules, he couldn’t push it back into the river itself. We had to figure the cost of removing and relocating that sand. It covered up good fertile soil with something that wasn’t good fertile soil.”
“After removing almost a half million cubic yards of sand and debris, Extension was vital in their information that they have on cover crops, such as how the combination of grasses, legumes and brassicas and how each one of them plays a different role rejuvenating significantly depleted and low organic soils,” Frenzen recalled.
“We didn’t really know what to expect, honestly, because we’ve never had to deal with a quantity of sand like that on our fields,” said his wife, Jan. “And we weren’t really sure what production levels we would be at that next year. Actually, in most cases we were pleasantly surprised with the yields that we had.”
Nebraska’s resiliency was tested by the 2019 flood and the COVID crisis that followed, said Kathleen Lodl, Associate Dean of Extension and 4-H program administrator.
“The university will continue to place a high priority on preparing Nebraskans for what lies ahead, whatever it may be,” she said.