Dirty laundry on the floor. Folding chairs leaned up against a tree. These threads of normalcy were welcome lifelines for the Wolfe family of Richland, Nebraska when they returned to their farm and ranch after evacuating during the flood that started March 14, 2019.
“There was water all the way around our house, but none in the house,” said Kristi Wolfe. “The first time we got to come in the house the dirty laundry was still sitting where I’d left it. The things we left behind when we did leave that Thursday were completely normal. Outside there was nothing normal. It was a very surreal feeling to walk in the house and see everything was just fine.”
On the banks of the Platte River the family had set up a camping spot that they shared with friends. They would grill while the kids played in the river. “There were two folding chairs leaned up against a tree. They’re still there. We have no idea why,” Wolfe said.
Wolfe’s husband, Drew and his father had said it would never flood. “We’d had minor floods, but nothing this all-consuming.”
The flood dropped several feet of silt on productive cornfields, burying parts of pivots. There was mud in the calving barn, bunkhouse and other outbuildings. Concrete feedbunks from the feedyard were shoved around and half-buried.
They don’t even know where 1,000 head of cattle ended up. While a lot of them washed away entirely, plenty still had to be disposed of. And they had cattle in their fields that they’d never seen before, washed in from who knows how far up the Platte River.
“As overwhelming as the devastation was, equally overwhelming was the love, kindness and help people shared with us,” Kristi said. “I honestly can’t say how things might have gone if it hadn’t been that way. Every time we needed something, someone showed up with what we needed. Hay, meals, fencing supplies. Things came from everywhere. People came from Arkansas, two cowboys from Louisiana came up for 11 days. People from all over helped out, plus people from Nebraska and our neighbors.”
Every day was a new challenge, Kristi said. Things they’d taken for granted, like being able to safely drive down the road or across a field, were suddenly dangerous.
One of Kristi’s nephews, in his early 20s, was helping gather cows and saw a calf struggling in a mud puddle. He jumped in to save the calf and went all the way under.
The next day a friend brought her horse out to help and they went into one of those hidden puddles. She said she knew it was time to bail off when the horse’s head went under water.
“Thankfully both of those turned out okay. There were so many things we didn’t know,” Kristi said. “Some of that sand was like quicksand.”
Their daily routine is over now, and likely to never be the same again. “I keep saying it’s a new normal, but none of it feels normal,” Kristi said. “Things still take longer than they used to. We’re slowly getting the feedlot put back together, hoping to take some feedlot cattle this fall. Thankfully our pairs were almost ready to go out to grass. Normally we’re chopping silage by now. We’ve had more rain over the last couple days, so that puts things even further back. It’s a different process of the daily things that happen.”
Standing in their yard looking at a landscape so foreign it might as well have been the moon, they knew they needed help, but that didn’t make it any easier to accept. “The first call we had about donated hay I knew my husband would have a very hard time,” Kristi said. “It was very hard for me. That first ‘yes’ was the absolute hardest. You cry afterwards, thinking ‘what if somebody else needs this more than we do?’ You know you’re going to struggle, but we can’t do this by ourselves. At some point you come to realize you can’t do it on your own. People were incredible.”
A group from Michigan brought Easter baskets in April for their kids, and others. “There were so many thoughtful things,” Kristi said. A group from York, Nebraska knew it was going to be Kristi and Drew’s daughter Alyse’s eighth birthday and they got some gifts together. “There were a lot of really amazing personal things like that.”
Wolfes have spent nearly six months getting things put back together enough to function and hopefully collect a paycheck of some sort. Their banker has been supportive through the whole ordeal. “The bank has been amazing,” Kristi said. “They’ve continually asked what they can do, how they can help.”
The bank had funds set aside they put toward the recovery, which allowed the Wolfes to rent an extra skidloader when they needed to get a lot of things moved.
But Kristi knows there are some difficult conversations down the road. “We haven’t had to make any definite decisions about permanent things that will need to be changed. The bank has been very good about knowing this is going to take some time to figure out.”
The Wolfes have also gotten some help from Nebraska Farm Bureau and Nebraska Cattlemen, both organizations that helped coordinate donations.
“It’s hard to be on the receiving end of everything we’ve been given,” Kristi said. “Prayers, supplies, meals. You can never say thank you in an adequate way. It would have been an even bigger struggle if all those people hadn’t stepped in out of the goodness of their hearts. It was overwhelming, just the feeling of love and care that people were providing us with. You hear all the bad things, but we know there’s amazing goodness, because we’ve seen it.”