Any other day of the year it would have been just a bathroom at the Pawnee Park Stadium in Columbus.
But by Thursday evening, it was transformed into the base of operations for all search and rescue missions being headed up across the Columbus area – extensive county flooding Tuesday evening had left several people stranded.
The Nebraska National Guard about 6:30 p.m. Thursday started rescue operations with its Black Hawk helicopters. This was initially delayed due to harsh wind conditions and was later called off that evening in Platte County due to a rescue operation in Arlington.
Seven people, five from fire departments in Fremont and Cedar Bluffs, along with two airboat operators, were traveling on the Elkhorn River when their boats capsized around 9 p.m. Thursday. All were eventually rescued by 10:30 p.m. after spending hours in the frigid river water.
Helicopter rescue operations in Columbus resumed about 7:30 a.m. on Friday. As of Thursday evening, Platte County Sheriff Ed Wemhoff said they had picked up at least 20 people, mostly from south of the Platte River. He said rescue operations will continue as needed in the upcoming days.
“Everybody’s pretty much stranded,” Wemhoff said. “There are some that we struggled with yesterday getting to, still struggling a little bit with them today. We’re doing our best to get to everywhere that we know of.”
“... I can tell you last night (Thursday) the two crews that were here when they had to call it quits for the night, they were pooped. They have just as much of a desire to save these people as we do here … They’re up there working their tails off, and every return with people is a success story.”
Emergency Medical Technicians and other first responders were on site to transport people to Columbus Community Hospital as needed. Steven Roach, a maintenance worker for the East Central District Health Department, was also present to transport people either to residential homes or to the FEMA shelter set up at the hospital. As of noon on Friday, he had transported five adults, a child and a cat.
He was joined by Columbus' Seth Daniels, who was waiting to pick up some friends stranded on their property out by Camp Pawnee. Smoking cigarettes was the only comfort and tension reliever the two had as they waited for the next helicopter to arrive.
“It’s a very stressful situation waiting on people. I hope I never see anything like this again,” Roach said. “People are losing cattle and homes, so it’s devastating.”
After waiting for two hours, the helicopter with Daniels’ friends arrived. The three stepped off of the chopper at the parking lot and were loaded with backs full of whatever they could carry from home, all visibly exhausted. Although they declined to speak with The Telegram, the group said they wanted to thank all participating first responders for their rescue.
As search and rescue efforts continued throughout the day, several local residents came out to catch a view of the Loup River for themselves. One of them was Columbus' Matthew Chard, who on Friday drove to the Ramada Hotel and River's Edge Convention Center parking lot. He said his home is located by the Columbus Transfer Station, which closed on Friday due to the flooding. Chard said he was concerned about the state of the levee along the Loup River, which was under watch by officers from the Columbus Police Department.
Platte County Emergency Manager Tim Hofbauer said as of 1 p.m. Friday the waters around the levee in Columbus had dropped by a foot. He added that water levels in other areas have also started diminishing.
As of 7:15 p.m. Friday, the Loup River in Columbus was recorded at just over 15 feet deep. On Thursday, information from the National Weather Service shows the river peaked at 17.74 feet. This was the second highest level reached since the Loup was nearly 20.07 feet deep during the historic flood of March 1993. The depth recorded Thursday is the second highest since 1966.
It is still unknown, though, when major roads in the area will be reopened.
“It’s definitely been somewhat of controlled chaos for a while, but it's actually going pretty OK today,” Hofbauer said on Friday. “It’s looking a lot better.”
Hofbauer said a number of bridges along Shell Creek were destroyed or damaged by the flood. But the area bearing the brunt of the flooding damage has been land located south of Columbus caught in the crosshairs of the Loup and Platte rivers. Columbus Mayor Jim Bulkley said that things – as of Friday – could be a lot worse for Columbus, adding that he’s hopeful major roads can be reopened within the next few days.
“Overall for what we could have seen, we came through this in pretty good shape,” Bulkley said. “We’ve seen great amounts of recession. The water has really receded since last night. We’re in pretty good shape. We’re still locked in. We can’t get to the north, south, east or west. So I hope everyone's enjoying Columbus because that’s where we’re stuck.”
For those interested in helping those affected by the flood, the Columbus Platte County Area Disaster Fund has been created through First National Bank to receive donations. A drop-off location for supplies will be arranged sometime in the next few days. Right now, Bulkley said the best thing anyone can do is donate money because it can be used to buy supplies that are most needed.
“If anyone is wanting to help, the best thing they can do right now is (provide) a financial donation through this fund through First National Bank,” Bulkley said.
Eric Schucht is a reporter for The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at email@example.com.