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One Day at a Time

Jenny Stortz and her husband coordinated donations and fundraisers, and personally delivered feed and supplies to Nebraska farmers affected by the flooding this spring. This is her story, in her own words. 

Farming is very personal for us as we both farm, my husband full time, myself part-time (I’m a full time nurse).  We both grew up on farms raising cattle, we look forward to planting and harvest and we both enjoy being a part of the agricultural community.  This really hit home for us.  We didn’t stop to think if this was something we should do, we started talking about what can we do, when can we do something, how can we help, where can we help.  It was almost a knee-jerk reaction…we realized they needed help and we started talking about ways in which we could help them.  We know if the tables were turned, they would be there for us.   

Sunday April 7th, 2019 

We found our way to the next stop where we met the owner of the farm on the road. Not sure he knew what to think as he saw a semi with a cargo trailer leading the small convoy of three, as most our other volunteers were headed for home. 

“I see you have some supplies for me.” he said. “How about I just load up my cows on a trailer and just give up…” he said.  

“We don’t want you to do that,” Nick replied, “that’s why we’re here.” 

These guys had lived through the “100 year flood” less than 10 years ago, just to re-live the “100 year flood” again this year. The stories and videos they shared of water rushing through fields making them look like lakes, and water rushing over roads was insane. Hard for us to imagine as we talked on that 65-degree sunny day. 
Like others we had helped that day, they were no strangers to the challenges that life brought. They did their best to hold back the emotion when we talked about the hay and supplies we brought them. They were so thankful and I’m pretty sure if one of us started crying, we all would have been crying.  
We were lucky to have been informed that their neighbor could also likely use supplies. They called him up and he came down. He sorted through and was able to take some needed items home to his cattle, too.  
After most of the sorting was through, I got my chance to go take a peek and photograph the one thing I had my eye on since I got there– the 460 Farmall. 
“You don’t want to take pictures of that old thing!” he said.  
Of course I replied, “You have no idea how much I love old tractors! Especially when they’re red!”  
One thing we agreed on, those old handles have a lot of stories to tell.  
Not only being one of the nicest couples we could have met, they fed us supper and gave us a place to stay for the night, too. While the goal was to get to bed early and have a good night’s rest, it was a late night for most. I don’t think you’d hear any complaining though, as it was filled with stories, jokes and some good conversation around their old family kitchen table. Felt like it was where we were just meant to be that night. We left that morning with bellies full of breakfast, new friends, and warm hearts knowing we had been led to the right place. 
We drove down to the neighbor’s, chatted with him, looked at his cows, of course, took advantage of them being so photogenic, maaaaybe did a little wheelin’ and dealin’… then headed on our way to the next stop.  

Monday April 8th, 2019 

This place made news as the 800+ acre farm that was completely covered under water from the overflowing Platte River. You’ll see tiny islands of cattle, the house, some buildings and trees.  
I asked if he knew it was under water before seeing it on the news. He said “I got a text message from my sister saying there’s a video of Fremont completely under water. She said, I think it’s the farm.”  
And it was.  
The stories this rancher has are unbelievable… disturbing… scary… heartbreaking.  
I first connected with this rancher Sunday morning. I called to talk to him about a hay delivery it sounded like he could use. I asked what else he thought he needed, asked about fencing supplies and vet supplies. Like everyone else, there was no astounding “yes, we need supplies.” We sent out trucks of hay on Sunday and I told him we could probably deliver some fencing supplies on Monday and he was ok with that.  
I called him Monday and asked if he was still interested. Again, not a strong yes but said he would use what we were able to supply him with. We had to drop the hay at a location off the farm on Sunday since the roads were so bad, but when I talked to him Monday he said we could probably make it to the farm, that there had been trucks in and out. If the roads were “better” when we drove on them, I could only imagine what they were like before. I came to find out later those trucks on the road he mentioned were hauling the dead livestock away from his farm.  
You know it’s serious when one of the first things you see when you pull in the driveway is a rescue airboat parked on the farm. What we didn’t realize when we got there was the extreme devastation this farmer and his family actually had going on. I walked down a mile or so of dirt road, completely shocked at how things had been destroyed. Dirt cut and carved out, trees uprooted, feed bunks thrown around, a stream of water still rolling through. “There’s about 40 bunks buried out there” he said later that night… I think I saw about 10. 
But these things were absolutely nothing compared to what we saw later. 
When we finished unloading supplies we took a quick ride around his farm. We asked him if he wanted to come. We realized later why he told us to go on without him. 
‘How many cattle do you think are out there?” I asked after we returned. 
“Probably about a thousand…” he said. 
Completely shocked, I asked “of dead cattle?!” 
“Yeah…” he answered as he started going into detail about the numbers he had and the numbers he figured he lost.  
Dead cattle scattered around like a handful of confetti that had been thrown up into the air and fallen back onto the floor… strewn across over 200 acres. Stuck along fence lines, buried in brush, shoved up against corner posts, mangled in the trees. We saw a small handful of this mess.  
It was absolutely, heartbreakingly, unreal….  
He talked with Mike about the ridge out in the pasture. As the water rose, the cattle went to the ridge. As the water continued to rise, and the current continued to strengthen, the ridge was compromised. Little by little, the ridge was taken out. And cattle dropped into the water. Swept away to their death. 
The only thing I could come to mutter while we drove through the disaster zone was “oh my God… oh my God…oh.. my… God…” There were no words we could use to describe what we were seeing.  
We had heard about it… dead cattle hanging in trees, stuck along fences or mangled in brush, dead cattle half buried in sand, acres of land completely taken over by sand… acres of land covered in sand that was 3 to 6 feet deep, covering pastures and fences. Hearing it was one thing. Seeing it… seeing it was so much of another thing.  
And this rancher had all of that… hundreds of cattle gone, many to never be found…. feet of sand over almost all of his pastures and fields. So much sand we could barely see the tops of fence posts. We could barely see the fence lines at all. So much sand it covered the wheels on the irrigation system. So. Much. Sand.  
The future for this generation farm and farmer has so many questions now. 
“I can see the river from my house, I never used to be able to… it’s kind of an eerie feeling, seeing that. Scary.” 
I asked him if he evacuated and he said yes. When asked how long he was evacuated for, “Two weeks,” he replied. “We just moved back in the house a week ago Thursday. It was really hard on the kids.” Between the roads and driveway getting washed out, it was a challenge for them to get home sooner.  
When they evacuated everyone took something to the road. 
“I led with my bulldozer to make sure there were no holes in the ground.” 
An end loader and tractor followed and last was the truck, in it, the rest of his family.  
“The water was over the hood of the truck. That’s when I got scared. We should have left sooner. There were kids in there, you know.”  
On this ranch, his fences were completely destroyed and wiped out. Miles and miles of fence that need replacing. He said he wouldn’t be surprised if it wouldn’t happen until June, as wet as it was.  
He was hoping to get some seed to plant in the lots next to his cattle, he’ll need feed after summer grazing is done. He mentioned how he was already worried about the fall coming, saying they might have to sell some cows. Their fields will never be planted this year. I’d be surprised if they’re planted next year. He’ll be buying feed or selling cows. I think his decision is already made if he gets to that point.  
His goal right now is to get the cows to pasture. They typically take them to central Nebraska to graze. He’s hoping by the second week in May they can go, if not sooner. The feed he has now has been soaked in feet of water. He’s hoping tests may show it still has some value. He’s being challenged by sick calves, often unable to keep them alive, spending time and money to treat and care for them, only to lose them in the end. Stress, change, and no mommas are hard on a newborn baby calf. Not to mention a farmer. 
And like everyone else we met, he was humbled and thankful we did what we could. Us, we felt like we didn’t do nearly enough, knowing there will be struggles and challenges, there will be unanswered questions, and that the future he is looking into is so unknown.  
“One day at a time,” he said quite often. “We’ll just take it one day at a time. We don’t have any other choice.”  

Update Sept. 9, 2019 

We STILL have funds that we are looking to use up, spending it like we did in the spring on supplies from our local stores, and delivering it to specific individuals.  Right now, we have over $10,000, which is so impressive, considering all of that was donated after we came back.  It’s been a challenge returning since my husband farms full time, and I work full time and the summer has been busy as well as into fall now.   

We are looking forward to going back, hopefully with a lot of our same crew.  It was really neat hearing their expressions of how they felt good giving like they did.  I think it was an eye-opening experience for most if not all, considering the majority hadn’t done anything like that before.  Everyone from our group got the chance to interact with one or more of the individuals we helped who went through the flooding, hearing their stories, and seeing the devastation.  It really adds to the reality of the situation and why we wanted to help.  It was an extremely busy two weeks of preparation leading up to our deliveries, but made the reward was well worth it.  

Hot Meals to Go: Nebraska charity provides hot meals for disaster victims

The bomb cyclone that swept through Nebraska in March displaced many families, tore up infrastructure, and managed to bring many communities together. Out of all the destruction, one business found the ability to bloom; Hot Meals USA. 

Hot Meals USA is a 501(c)(3) charity that provided 8,300 meals for affected families, emergency management personnel, and law enforcement and emergency medical professionals during the wake of the storms in Nebraska. The organization is based out of Kearney, Neb. but has the ability to provide meals to victims all over the country.  

The inspiration started long before the bomb cyclone hit Nebraska. The idea and need for an organization like this started in 2011 in Joplin, Missouri. Hot Meals USA founder, Dick Chochran was living just 11 miles from the devastation of the EF5 tornado when it tore through 22 miles of Joplin and surrounding communities. Chochran was able to gather some food and buddies who loaded up eight barbecue grills, 500 pounds of hamburger and nearly 500 hotdogs. When they arrived in Joplin seven hours after the tornado hit, an emergency center worker said food wasn’t needed at that time of day.  

Chochran responded, “What about the police and firemen who have been working through this all night?” 

Having forgotten about feeding those people, the woman had Chochran and his crew escorted to the command center, and within 40 minutes burgers were on the grill.  

“We spent three days feeding those firemen and policemen,” said Chochran, “They were the real heroes there, not us.” 

It was this event that led Chochran to build an organization equipped to help victims, management personnel, and emergency staff in the wake of destruction. Before getting too involved, Cochran met with the Red Cross to discuss the idea, he wasn’t sure if this was even needed in the community. Red Cross was enthusiastic, and other major players Chochran brought in said “this is exactly what we need right now.” Now, Hot Meals USA has the ability to feed 2,500 meals a day from their portable trailer, and have two more units in the works.  

“We just want to help people when they are down. We are trying to do what we already do every day,” said Chochran.  

Dickey’s BBQ Franchise owner and 30-year veteran of Schwan’s, Cochran has connections in the food industry. Hot Meals USA was the product of a desire to help people in need and seeing a need for it during large disasters. 

“People my age, 9 times out of 10 you can show up to volunteer and they will tell you to go home,” said Chochran.  

By today’s standards, you get an A+ if you are on the ground in 72 hours after a natural disaster. Chochran thought “we can do better than that.” With Chochran’s trailers, he estimates his crew can be on the ground and cooking meals within 24 hours. This is made possible by the strategic placement of his trailers.  

Right now, Chochran is running one small unit, a 24 foot trailer that can cook about 2,500 meals a day if needed. A second trailer, a medium unit is a 48-foot trailer that can cook 4-5,000 meals a day when needed. Chochran hopes to one day have large units as well, a 53 foot double decker that would have the capacity to serve 25,000 meals a day. There are plans to have a medium unit placed between Kansas City and Joplin, Missouri for quick response times. Large units will be disbursed in areas near the interstates, giving them quick access to major cities in the wake of natural disasters.  

When the units are not deployed to help communities in need, they can be used for community events, state fairs and other special events. One recent event was in Donovan, Neb. where Red Cross, United Way, FEMA and other organizations were hosting a gathering for victims of flooding. People could come to fill out the necessary paperwork or check-in on their statuses in getting relief from damage. Hot Meals USA was there to feed the victims who were attending. 

After the bomb cyclone in Nebraska, Hot Meals USA was called on to feed victims in Dannebrog, Neb. Chochran had one cooking unit at the time and they hadn’t put it to use yet, but in one evening they were able to feel 350 people. 

“These are good meals too,” said Chochran, “We fed turkey, ham, mashed potatoes, and green beans.” 

A few weeks later in Hamburg, Iowa, Hot Meals USA served 500 meals. In July they were able to provide food for the Red Cross to deliver in Kearney, Neb. totaling more than 1,100 meals. In the six months following the March bomb cyclone Hot Meals USA served 8,300 meals in 26 different locations.  

“We’re just a bunch of cooks and certified chefs who want to go out and cook food for people who have lost everything,” said Chochran.  

Hot Meals USA is still running on one trailer, with another nearly finished. Thanks to Cookies BBQ, a 48-foot trailer was donated and will be rolled out shortly. Chochran has big hopes for Hot Meals USA. Eventually he would like to have seven units in total, two medium and two large units, out in the world working. At that point, Hot Meals USA would be able to provide 13,000 meals a day. 

If you would like to volunteer with Hot Meals USA you can email HotMealsUSA@gmail.com and follow their website or Facebook Page for the latest updates.  

Kindness through devastation

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.”  

Using Water to Fight Water

If you have driven through farm country during harvest season, there is a good chance you have seen the long white grain bags lying in fields like giant caterpillars. Made of 10mm polyethylene (PE) they are usually 9 or 10 feet wide and 200-300 feet long, with a grain capacity of 8,000 to over 14,000 bushels. They are a temporary on-site storage solution, saving farmers’ time and labor spent trucking the harvest to bins and are much cheaper than steel bins. The bags are a one-time use product and cost between $900 and $1,000 each. 

While the bags are designed to protect grain from moisture, the residents of Wood River, Nebraska are thankful for these bags and outside-the box-thinking. Ken Christensen of the Grand Island, Nebraska Aurora Cooperative had seen a YouTube video showing grain bags used in place of sand bags. When the massive flooding started in March, they were brainstorming options and he remembered the online video and the Aurora Cooperative donated a bag to use as a temporary dam which helped divert the flood waters. The bag was used together with traditional sand bags along highway 30 near Alda, Nebraska and diverted the water around the town. 

Unfortunately, the flooding in March was only the beginning of an extremely wet year, with much of the state already having received more than twice their normal precipitation. Early July brought yet another flooding event to Nebraska when up to 9 inches of rain fell overnight, flooding the area and swelling rivers. To save their town, volunteers created a temporary dam to hold back the Wood River from flooding the town of Wood River. Since the grain bag had been effective in March, the Aurora Cooperative donated two of the huge bags. Using a fire truck to pump water into the empty bags, they were used along Highway 30 and Cottonwood. Dirt was piled along the bags from a field. “We found out that we had to have the white side out, the black side got too hot and we had one rupture. We used a garden hose to run water over the bags to cool the plastic,” said Brian Urbom, local manager for the Cairo, Wood River and Sodtown Aurora Cooperative and paramedic/volunteer on the Wood River Fire Department. 

The Aurora Coop was established in1908 and committed to the belief that by joining together, farmers can accomplish things they cannot accomplish alone. They have a strong commitment to their communities and employees. “They have been really good to their employees during the flooding. They never questioned time off and paid for hotel rooms for those whose homes flooded. They have been very good to the volunteer fire department and organizations, like 4-H,” Urbom said. “It has been an unprecedented year, the reality of working in agriculture, whether in crops or livestock, we have to work through all the challenges and keep working for a good outcome.” 

The March flooding was mainly north of highway 30, while the July event affected those living south of the highway. The grain bag dam is still in place, with plans being made for a permanent water barrier. The farming outlook is grim with the fields beyond saturated, some of the crops were drowned out or planting was prevented completely. “Farmers are worried about the cool weather, (possibility of an) early frost and the fields not drying out. Folks who have never had water in their basements are pumping it out this year,” Urbom said. 

FEMA has helped some of the residents of Wood River. Different church organizations and groups came to help cleanup homes and offer support. “Some of the houses still have $20-50,000  worth of damage. The owners’ incomes are too high to qualify for federal assistance but they don’t have the money to repair the damage themselves,” Urbom said.  

Urbom has been a paramedic for many years, so he was one of the many who stepped forward during the March nightmare. “I was truly overwhelmed by the people who offered help. One lady with a bad back brought us coffee. People came from all over Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, Missouri, it was pretty cool. 

“I rode in the airboat doing water rescues from vehicles and homes. The state patrol brought in a LAV (a light armored vehicle, which has eight wheels and is amphibious); we took it across town for a cardiac event since the ambulance couldn’t get there. For about 48 hours none of us slept, from Friday to Sunday. Friday night of the flood we had already shut down the highways, it was like 9 p.m. and this guy pulls up. He was in his 60s or 70s, from eastern Nebraska and he came to fill sandbags. On Monday a couple showed up offering assistance, they were from a town east of Lincoln that had been flooded. When they told us where they were from, we said, ‘Didn’t it flood?’ ‘Our house is gone; we didn’t know what else to do,’ they said.”