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While others were sound asleep in their beds during the early hours of the days following the devastating March flooding, an assortment of city and county officials congregated inside the Platte County Courthouse assessing the situation.

One was Denise Kollath, who for the past 13 years has been serving as the program coordinator for the Columbus Area United Way. Through her role with the nonprofit, she has received disaster training and assisted with other adverse situations affecting neighboring counties. This time, though, tragedy unfolded in her own backyard.

So, she wanted to do anything she could to assist.

“I like her because when we had the flood she was right there representing the United Way – I would see her at like 4 a.m. in the basement of the courthouse,” Platte County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jerry Engdahl said. "She has been very involved and seems to really know her stuff, so that made the decision pretty easy for us.”

The decision Engdahl referenced was the board unanimously appointing Kollath to serve as a member of the East Central Region Recovery Group. The committee, set up as a nonprofit organization, will serve residents of Platte, Butler, Colfax, Boone and Nance counties with ongoing recovery.

The United Way assisted with some of the short-term recovery efforts, and now, about seven months since, a team comprised of representatives from each of the aforementioned counties will use private donations and grants – not United Way dollars - to continue helping those who are struggling.

Kollath, through her United Way position, acts as a liaison between the nonprofit and the local Disaster Preparedness team. This spring proved to be the most devastating event she’s encountered.

“This is the first big emergency that we have responded to – something of this magnitude,” Kollath said. “ … (And) That’s why it was created, so that we can really meet long-term needs. Immediate needs are people that are misplaced – they need food, shelter, water, those things.

“But the long term is getting people back into their homes, seeing how people affected initially are doing now financially. At the time of the flood, they might not have been working.”

Kollath’s role, specifically, will be handling the needs of Platte County residents. Currently, a few case workers are meeting with affected county residents and learning where they are with getting back on their feet and returning to some sense of normalcy.

A lot of this has to do with reviewing a list of county residents who applied for, or received, assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Many are still bogged down in the seemingly never-ending process of receiving dollars to help piece their lives back together, she said.

Jan Zurcher, director of Columbus Emergency Relief, is currently serving as the long-term case manager for the East Central Region Recovery Group. She said that it ties in with what she does during her day job, helping folks with things like rental assistance, paying utility bills and walking them through other problematic situations many in low-income or no-income situations encounter.

“If they were signed up with FEMA for anything having to do with that particular incident (the flood), then we are going to go through and backtrack and connect with them," Zurcher said. "We are comparing the list of the names there to the people that we have seen already … There are still a large number there that have not been contacted.”

While appointments are still being made and the recovery team is not finalized, Zurcher noted that positives are already being seen and that people are being helped.

“We are up and running, we are functional right now,” she said.

Kollath said that the recovery team will be intact for the foreseeable future, a time frame she said she really isn’t entirely too sure of. At this point, it’s all about East Central team representatives doing their part to make a difference for as long as it’s needed.

“I personally feel (that) we are still months away from seeing the absolutely full effect of this flooding in our area,” Kollath said. “We are coming into winter and we have people who were affected financially by this. And we helped meet their short term needs, helped keep them in their homes.

“But where are they when it comes time to start paying utility bills? And we talk about Nebraska Strong, and we do help people out, but there are still those people out there who maybe haven’t hit their wall yet.”

And everyone does have a breaking point, she said. It’s just a matter of when it happens. While the tragic events of the spring are still fresh on people’s minds, most have gotten back to their normal lives. Because of this, it can be tough for them to see the full extent of the horror many still face.

“It’s kind of an out of sight, out of mind thing,” Kollath said of those no longer feeling the effects. “But people need to know that flood recovery is not over yet. It really isn’t, and it’s families, it’s farms, its businesses (affected)."

Sam Pimper is the news editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at sam.pimper@lee.net.

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News Editor

Sam Pimper is the news editor of The Columbus Telegram, Schuyler Sun and The Banner-Press newspapers. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2015.

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