Over the last several years, my home state of Nebraska has become a bit of a laughing stock for the rest of the nation.
In 2016, a first rendering of a new license plate design that critics say depicted the state capitol building’s sower engaging in sexual innuendo solicited national mockery as several different late night talk show hosts and stations put their own flair on the story.
As if the state hadn’t learned its lesson then, just last fall it unveiled a new state slogan. What Nebraskans long embraced as “Nebraska: The Good Life” was retired for “Honestly, it’s not for everyone.” While the self-deprecating humor has grown on me since the initial announcement, I still like to think of it as the good life.
What was far less that comical was the recent, unprecedented flooding events that devastated an estimated 95 percent of the state’s population and caused more than $1.3 billion in widespread damage.
I watched with deep concern as word that the Spencer Dam (just 15 miles north of where I grew up) had burst hit my social newsfeed and photos of the broken 92-year-old hydroelectric structure continued to spread. Rightfully so, its perish has raised questions about the state’s dated infrastructure, but in all reality, I don’t think many believe it was designed to hold the amount of water that came rushing through it. One man that lived in the valley and operated what was known as Angels’ Straw Bale Saloon is still missing two weeks later.
Devastation continued thereon downstream, as massive ice chunks floated down Nebraska’s thousands upon thousands of river miles (there are more than 79,000 miles).
Photos of entire small towns completely under water were far from uncommon. Rescues by airboat, helicopter and more were conducted by countless courageous volunteers. Perhaps you’ve heard the story of James Wilke, a farmer near Columbus, Neb. who was asked to help a stranded motorist on a rural road escape. He answered the call, but the bridge he needed to cross with his tractor had collapsed as he was en route to provide help. He was killed.
I also watched a video of a caravan of loaded cargo trucks be escorted by the Nebraska State Patrol into the city of Fremont (northwest of Omaha), bringing in much-needed staples like milk and bread after flood waters had temporarily stranded the northeastern Nebraska town from every direction.
Stories similar to two ranchers that were only able to locate about 14 pigs of their 700 herd were also common. A stable of horses stood in waist deep water for days before they could be safely rescued.
These are just a snippet of the stories that traveled across various local and (eventually) national media outlets.
I asked my dad and brother how they were doing, trying to save baby calves being born every day despite the flooded pastures. Despite their struggle to navigate around washed out roads that once connected them to their cattle, I was surprised to hear they were more fortunate than many.
But as my dad reminded me, the impacts of the flood won’t diminish as the river recedes. Not only will lost infrastructure, businesses and homes take years to repair, farmers far and wide will undoubtedly experience less productive ground. Those with cattle will carry a weight of concern to stretch their grassland to sustain their herds throughout the summer.
The photos of devastation to hit my home state has been disheartening, but the stories of people selflessly risking their own life to save others, donating supplies and money when they too have lost so much and just being good neighbors has helped restore optimism that together, they can pull through.
It’s also got me rethinking our state motto. I’d advocate for “Nebraska: The Good Life with Better People.”