On May 6, 2015, Carol Hopken was pushing a nearly 13-hour shift when her husband Jerry called to say their home was gone.
Hopken came home to find six to 12 inches of water.
“You don’t realize how much stuff you have a foot off the floor,” she said.
Brewing that afternoon and evening were several tornadoes and a specific path of significant rainfall. The supercell storms were deemed “HP,” or high precipitation.
As the evening waned, radar warned of tornadic storms. The National Weather Service logged 27 tornado warnings and 22 severe thunderstorms warnings.
The specific path of the storms included the Hebron area and Deshler, where the Spring and Snake creeks merge behind the racetrack.
“Some of us ended up pulling an all-night event,” Deshler Volunteer Fire Department President Hal Hockersmith said.
The storm’s wake left the area No. 4225 in federally declared disasters, a number that has cumulated since the 1970’s, Earl Imler said. Imler is the operations section manager for Nebraska Emergency Management Agency, and the state coordinating officer for such disasters.
Although NEMA can’t pinpoint the exact cost for the damage in Thayer County last May, Imler said the state’s total cost was $28 million.
Thayer County Roads Superintendent George Gerdes said 10 bridges were wiped out because after May 6-7, it continued to rain.
“We suffered damages for over a month. Also, it was hard to repair anything while it was still raining and flooding,” Gerdes said. “There were so many roads (damaged).”
Engineering fees, small bridge and road repairs, and gravel work amounted to $778,000. Gerdes said that amount only covers completed work.
The roads department is still working to finish four box culverts and two bridges.
The Spring Creek bridge, which was recently scheduled for construction to start May 9, will cost $2,139,652, 82. Its completion date is Nov. 26.
“That doesn’t mean it will be finished, but you should be able to drive on it then,” Gerdes said.
He said FEMA has reimbursed the county $395,000 and as his department completes the culverts and bridges, the county will receive more.
The federal agency, which pays 75 percent of the total cost and NEMA, do not issue reimbursements for incomplete work. The county’s reimbursement from NEMA will be 12.5 percent of the total. As work is finished, reimbursements are deposited into the county’s general fund.
The cost of last year’s storm damage was the equivalent to two budget years for his department, Gerdes said.
At Meadowlark Heights Assisted Living in Deshler last year, Administrator Mary Miller was watching water seep in under the doors.
“It was coming through the wall furnaces. We couldn’t get out,” she said. “And the mud.”
The water was so swift, Miller said nothing, not even a boat, could help them.
The Hebron Volunteer Fire Department’s Dive Team came.
Fire Chief BJ Linton said they were spotting most of the day May 6, 2015.
That night, the Hebron department had a class down by Hardy. Two people were stranded after they had driven off the road.
“On the way back, we heard the assisted living had flooded in Deshler and we helped get them out,” Linton said.
Immediately after, rescue received another call because a couple of people who lived near Willard Park were forced out of their homes by the water.
Then, Linton said they were called to Highway 136. The water was over the road and three vehicles couldn’t go anywhere.
Linton said the next call took them back to Hebron on 13th Street. A truck driver was stranded.
“We were pretty much up all night long. No one got any sleep,” Linton said.
Hockersmith said the water was flowing rapidly on First, Third and Fourth streets in Deshler. Spring Creek hadn’t flooded yet, so Deshler rescue went around the east side of town to navigate south.
“We had to get people out of the south side,” Hockersmith said. “It was a mess fighting the heavy waters.”
They evacuated a number of residents living on Park Street and took them to the high school.
Deshler Fire battled the flooding until about 3 a.m., when Hockersmith said they had turn their attention to a house fire just south of the high school.
“I assume it was water-related,” Hockersmith said.
They couldn’t get close to the structure because of the surging water.
“We had to use larger hoses and we only able to contain it,” he said.
The fire was close to Spring Creek, which had overflowed its banks.
The fire fighters tried to cross the rushing water, but overhead power lines stopped them.
“We were forced to go into more of a defensive position. The house was a loss,” Hockersmith said.
After three and a half hours of fighting the fire, the volunteers watched the sunrise before they finally put the trucks away.
“It’s taxing on the manpower. The events back to back to back kept our guys engaged for 12 hours,” Hockersmith said.
The Hopkins were worn out.
“It was devastating,” Carol Hopkin said.
In addition to the six inches or more inside the home and sewer backup, three feet of water filled the garage. Four feet was in the shop.
All of Jerry’s equipment was underwater, Hopkin said.
“We’re still having troubles with the equipment from last year. We’re still cleaning up,” Hopkin said.
Jerry wasn’t doing the best, since he had been hospitalized in January. Hopkin said her church and her children helped them clear the house.
“If it hadn’t been for them and Russ and Mary Fangmeyer, I don’t know what we would have done,” she said.
The water covered her Grasshopper mower and it destroyed their pickup, a bobcat and the shop door.
“It washed the dirt out from around the trees,” Hopkin said.
Water surrounded their home on three sides. Hopkin said their property wasn’t a floodplain prior to the June 22, 2003, tornado.
As they waded to salvage what they could from their home, Hopkin said she and Jerry grabbed the three or four outfits they would take to the apartment they rented for most of 2015.
“Everything you see here is new,” Hopkin said twice about her living room and kitchen.
A remediation team tore out the walls and kitchen cabinets. The bathroom had to come out.
They had watched the raging flood take propane tanks downstream.
“Jerry heard them hissing,” Hopkin said.
The water swirled through their land, taking screens from their indoor patio, lawn furniture, planters and even Hopkin’s steel benches.
One of their refridgerators was saved, but it wasn’t the newer one with a half of beef inside.
“It just about bankrupt us. I put in over 500 hours of cleaning alone,” Hopkin said.
She still has boxes in the flat storage building.
“Every time I go and bring back a box, it all has to be cleaned,” she said.
That evening, Hopkin’s dad, Harold, was one of the residents stuck at Meadowlark Heights.
“They had to evacuate my dad.”
Miller said not only was water creeping into the assisted living facility, it was also coming in through the halls and rooms at Park Haven Nursing Home.
“When they could get out, they were pushing beds and wheelchairs,” Miller said.
Once the residents were safely at the high school, Miller said she called other nursing homes to try and find temporary homes.
“But no one could get into town until about 1 or 1:30 (p.m.) because it was so flooded in the country,” she said.
But Miller told the fire marshall, the nursing home residents would be back in their rooms within a week.
“You know us, we’ve come through the tornado in record time. We were back in there in a week. I don’t know how,” she said.
It took several months before the assisted living building was ready for residents.
“That was all carpeted. It all had to come up,” Miller said.
The total cost for Meadowlark and Park Haven was $250,000. The facility did not carry flood insurance.
“Most don’t. We’re a city-owned nursing home. You don’t have a lot of money. It’s not a for profit kind of thing. We are here for the people, the community. A quarter of a million is a lot for us,” Miller said as she pointed toward the folders she is working on for a reimbursement from FEMA.
Over at the City of Deshler, clerk Julie Buescher said the city’s tally for the 2015 flood was $180,000 after the streets, park, swimming pool, flooded water heaters and painting costs were added.
After 20 years at the facility with 18 of them in administration, Miller said she didn’t know she was going to be in training for floods.
That’s because last week, another rush of rain pounded the Deshler and Hebron areas, closing Highway 136 and forcing residents to the high school once again.
Miller, fielding calls and interviews from media on the morning of April 27, said it rained April 26, and then hailed before it calmed down.
Then, it was a downpour, Miller said. Only this time, it wasn’t Spring Creek overflowing, it was Snake Creek, which runs behind the two facilities.
That’s when Miller said she hightailed it to the nursing home and then, to Deshler Fire.
She was asked by Fire Chief Mike Finke if she wanted to evacuate. Finke said it might be better to evacuate as a precaution.
There was no water in the streets as Miller entered the nursing home, but when she walked out the back door, she stepped into knee-deep water.
“It was running fast and slimy on the bottom. The water was going up fast and we couldn’t get out. It (Snake Creek) sounded like the Colorado River,” Miller said.
At 8:26 p.m., April 26, a photo of Highway 136 was posted on Facebook. It was flooded and would soon flow into Deshler. Miller told her assistant director of nursing, Linda Wiedemann, to evacuate.
“It wasn’t raining at the time. We moved them to the high school in wheelchairs and beds,” Miller said. “People in the neighborhood just came over to help. That’s the thing about small towns.”
They moved 35 residents from the nursing home and eight from the assisted living facility.
She thinks Superintendent Al Meier stayed at the school all night, and she can’t say enough good things about her staff’s response.
Miller said people feel helpless during natural disasters.
“As human beings, you want to be in charge,” she said.
She goes with her faith.
“Stay calm and take care of yourself and take care of the residents because you can’t stop it,” she said. “The residents are always so good, too. They know you’re trying.”
On the morning of April 27, Miller showed up at the high school and a resident said, ‘You’re here, let’s go.’
There was a lot of mud and slime in the streets, but the water was receding. Miller said they waited until daylight to move residents back.
Once again, Deshler and Hebron Fire Departments, and the dive team were out.
Deshler assisted on Highway 136 until the Nebraska Department of Roads came and barricaded the highway.
Hebron had a little more excitement. About 9:30 p.m., they received a call from Finke because a man was trapped on the second floor of his Deshler home by floodwaters.
Linton said the water was waste deep with three to four feet of water filling up the first floor of the home.
The dive team orchestrated a rope rescue by placing a harness on the man to rescue him.
“A disaster is really a disaster at the local level until you can’t handle it,” NEMA duty and state mitigation officer, Mary Baker said.
She was the go-to person for Thayer County Emergency Manager Bill McPherson, if needed.
That night, approximately eight to nine inches of rain fell west and south of Deshler. Highway 136 was closed until midnight.
McPherson said he follows a process in such events from his Emergency Operating Center in Thayer County Courthouse and activates warnings in a series of levels. Level 3 is the lowest and Level 1 is a tornado touchdown.
In an emergency, information flows from and to McPherson’s office via law enforcement, fire departments, state and county roads departments, National Weather Service and even the National Guard, along with NEMA.
When Highway 136 closed between Highways 5 and 14, McPherson put out an Integrated Public Alert and Warning, which ties into television and radio alerts.
“We put out the first message and it failed. The second activation worked. We sent the warning out everywhere. We were dealing with one thing right after another. Jim Dunker from Fillmore County came down and helped out. I went to Deshler and checked in with the fire department,” McPherson said.
Two residences in the Deshler areawere affected by the recent flooding — one in town and Hopkin’s.
“We’ve never had floods like this,” Hopkin said.
Last year, the Natural Resources District told her they were going to work on a plan.
“They told me they weren’t going to allow this to happen,” she said. “I believe in keeping your word. Don’t wait until the next flood comes around.”
Hopkin said every time she hears rain and thunder, she is scared.
Mike Onnen of the NRD in Davenport said an open meeting will be scheduled, but in the meantime, the NRD’s next board meeting is May 10 at 7:30 p.m. in Davenport.
If anyone wants to speak at the board meeting, Onnen said they just need to let him know.
“It would be wise for people to come and visit with the board. Our next step would be a public meeting in Deshler. We want feedback from landowners,” Onnen said.
Last year’s flood was highly unusual, Onnen said.
It rained 10 to 13 inches in five to six hours, and to call it a 100-year storm is incorrect, he said.
A 100-year storm means there is a one percent chance of flooding. In a 1,000-year storm, the chance is one-tenth of one percent.
“What we had last year was extremely unusual. We really weren’t able to do much of anything,” Onnen said.
The NRD lost its main pipeline affecting about 400 customers. The rural water line was repaired for $230,000.
Part of a grant from Nebraska Environmental Trust went to Twin Valley Weed Management to clean debris out of the creeks south of Deshler. Twin Valley, Thayer County Weed Management and the City of Deshler began the job several weeks ago.
Project Coordinator Merle Illian said some of the debris piles may have gone back into the creeks.
“We’ve seen this on the Republican River before,” Illian said about back-to-back flooding.
The project had made it all the way to Hebron. Illian said about $50,000 was set aside for the clearing.
Illian said they have found about half a dozen to a dozen deceased cows and calves in the creeks from last year’s flooding.