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Schuyler rescue

Mark Horejsi uses his airboat to help a local resident - normally the place where Mark’s boat is approaching is U.S. Highway 15 in front of The Oak Ballroom.

After days of dealing with treacherous flooding conditions, Schuyler and all of Colfax County appear to be on the road to recovery.

There have been no reported deaths as a result of the flooding in Colfax County as of Saturday morning, according to District 2 County Commissioner Carl E. Grotelueschen and County Attorney Denise Kracl. They also noted Mark Arps, the county’s emergency management manager and highway superintendent, told them road conditions in the county were steadily improving. The entire county highway department was working Saturday and doing what it could to clear and fix roads.

“Mark Arps reported roads crews are making real good progress,” Grotelueschen said. “Traveling conditions in rural areas have improved greatly.”

Roads within Schuyler and in county towns, for the most part, are good, but county roads took a beating, Kracl noted.

Kracl and Grotelueschen on Saturday morning were among the many inside Schuyler Elementary School, which has served as the site of a community shelter the last few days thanks to the generosity of Schuyler Community Schools and the district’s superintendent, Dan Hoesing. Kracl praised Hoesing, as well as school district principals and other district staff members for their efforts. The shelter initially opened up Thursday at the middle school, but flooding forced officials to relocate it to the elementary.

“The school district has cared for all the people displaced and provided a center for the public through this whole period,” she said.

Statewide flooding first became an issue on March 13. Gov. Pete Ricketts declared a state of emergency for the entire state due to the severe ice buildup within the Platte, Loup and Elkhorn rivers, along with other bodies of water in the state. Pending potential conditions that included high winds, thunderstorms, flooding and tornadoes also played a role in his decision to declare an emergency.

By that afternoon, conditions in and around the county worsened. Bone Creek, south of Schuyler, and many other tributaries were out of their banks. Shell Creek was reportedly out of its banks everywhere in the county by the next morning.

By the afternoon of March 14, those in Rogers were encouraged to evacuate, while many county roads and farms became engulfed in water as both the Maple and Shell creeks swelled outside of their banks.

In Schuyler, the most particularly concerning area was on the south end of town near Schuyler Golf Course, Lake Socorro and The Oak Ballroom. The water levels of Dry and Bone creeks, as well as the Loup and Platte rivers, continued rising. Significant floodwater made its way into the city limits of Schuyler through the storm drains, causing havoc.

Schuyler Mayor Jon Knutson on March 14 said the southern area of Schuyler – where Highway 15 runs through – had become a bit of mess, noting barricades were being put up. The mayor said airboats had been deployed to rescue people in the Lake Socorro area who wanted help, adding the local fire department, as well as the city and county, have been working well together to keep people safe.

“Our southern park system right now is underwater,” he said, estimating that one could see water as far as the eye could see from the Oak Ballroom that day.

Longtime Schuyler resident Lilia Posada on Thursday said the situation has been hectic around town.

“A lot of ambulances, fire trucks. I think Schuyler is doing a good job rescuing people from Lake Socorro and surrounding areas,” she said.

Posada and her sister, Juana Vega, went to get her baby niece some milk at the store Thursday morning and witnessed the flooding firsthand.

“We heard the commotion by the entrance of the park and went to pass by it,” she said. “The golf course was full of water. Homes by Lake Socorro were being evacuated by boats and homes by The Oak Ballroom were asked to evacuate.”

Posada said she went to bed Wednesday night not thinking significant flooding would be problematic in her neck of the woods.

“I only heard wind gusting really bad. I didn’t think it was going to be this bad – I don’t think anyone else here thought it would be this bad either,” she said. “It’s also really windy over here and very hectic. A lot of alarms have been going off on our phones.”

The last several days have undoubtedly been stressful for those in Colfax County, but it also was a reminder of what makes the area special: The people.

“We’ve been completely cut off from the world,” Kracl said. “But it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from. If you had a need, it was taken care of here.”

People young and old, of different ethnicities, backgrounds, and in some cases, those who didn’t speak the same language, worked together to fill sandbags and haul them for others in need. It didn't matter if they were family, friends or complete strangers. Those displaced, whether residents or visitors stranded on their way somewhere else, were given a place to stay.

“It was amazing. We had three different sandbagging locations and it was just amazing to see young and old people of every ethnic background helping people. People who didn’t speak the same language used hand gestures and smiles to communicate with one another. It didn’t matter at that time,” Kracl said. “All that mattered was we needed sandbags and we needed to help each other. It was about humanity - one person helping another person. It was super encouraging. We were a community working together.”

Meanwhile, Colfax County, the City of Schuyler and various emergency personnel stepped up to ensure people were safe. Schuyler Fire and Rescue conducted several search-and-rescue operations, saving many from flooded areas in the county like Rogers, and transporting them to safety in Schuyler. Husker Helicopter owner and Schuyler native Kim Wolfe made several flights to pick up 20-plus people stranded in the floodwaters.

"It’s a good feeling just to be able to help people out,” Wolfe told the Sun on Saturday, noting many people he had picked up had tears in their eyes and were overwhelmed with joy when they thanked him. “I think everybody gets involved. It’s just the right thing to do and gosh, why wouldn’t you want to? The nice thing about Nebraskans, we like helping out and taking care of each other.

Wolfe was taking a break in Omaha early Saturday afternoon, but preparing to bring some folks back to the Columbus area before getting back to work in Colfax County.

“It’s rewarding when you can assist and help somebody,” he said. “I was brought up knowing to help when you can. I just have a unique tool.”

Nebraska State Patrol Capt. Frank Peck and his crew made numerous rescue flights between Lake Socorro and CHI Health Schuyler, while Nebraska National Guard also had its Blackhawk helicopters rescue people, including a 7-year-old boy and his grandfather, from floodwaters in the county.

Conditions weren’t friendly either. In one instance, several people were stranded in their vehicle in the middle of raging floodwaters. An initial attempt to reach them using a pickup truck was unsuccessful, so airboaters Mark Horejsi and Marty Ernst went in.

“Those guys worked,” Kracl said, recalling the winds and rapid, ice cold waters making for deadly conditions. “They battled cold weather, chunks of ice, high winds, as well as the raging floodwater to get in there and save those people who were stranded in their vehicle right in the middle of the floodwater. I wasn’t sure they were going to make it. They saved those people’s lives.”

Airboaters later managed to save more people, family pets, horses and farm cattle, Kracl noted, adding they also brought back bales of hay for horses.

Grotelueschen said area farmers were also doing what they could to help out their fellow community members.

“I am extremely proud,” Kracl said. “Mark (Arps) and his team are exceptional, as are the board of commissioners, those with the City of Schuyler and the community as a whole.”

Grotelueschen agreed.

“I’ve been nothing more than pleased with how the governmental agencies have worked together,” he said. “I’ve been really pleased with the whole community.”

QC Supply, Cargill, Eagle Communications and The Burrito House, as well as many local churches, are among the area organizations that have stepped up and donated food and various supplies to help keep the community shelter open.

Cargill and Eagle provided a hamburger and chili lunch free to everybody on Friday, while the generosity of many people and businesses allowed for a community breakfast at the shelter on Saturday morning. Pizza, Sloppy Joes and sandwiches were being served for lunch Saturday afternoon. Heartland Workers Center has been instrumental in providing warm meals to flood victims, Kracl noted.

“We’re hoping we can recover and heal,” Kracl said.

Colfax County Emergency Management on Saturday announced it believed water levels had receded. Officials warned county residents to not go near the Platte River or any sitting water, telling people to specifically avoid South Park Road and Higgins Drive in Schuyler.

The Schuyler Relief Fund has been created for flood relief at Pinnacle Bank for those who would like to make donations to help people in need.

Matt Lindberg is the managing editor of the Schuyler Sun. Reach him via email at matt.lindberg@lee.net.

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Managing Editor

Matt Lindberg is an award-winning journalist and graduate of the University of Kansas.

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