CENTER, Neb. — A private fund drive has raised nearly $46,000 for the repair of flood-damaged roads in two northeast Nebraska counties.
The "Road Improvement From Flood Devastation" effort recently wrapped up, according to co-organizer Laurie Larsen of Bloomfield, Nebraska. Plans call for the locally-generated money to be used as matching funds toward a federal grant benefiting roads in Knox and Boyd counties.
Donors could designate which county should receive their contribution.
"We had some late amounts come in, but now we have the final totals," Larsen said, noting Boyd County received about $29,300 while Knox County received about $16,200.
Larsen worked with two media colleagues — Shirley Cobb of O’Neill, Nebraska, radio station KBRX and Andy Classen of News Channel Nebraska — to spearhead the fundraising effort. They received the backing of volunteers who contributed time and money.
They reached out to Verdigre, Nebraska, Mayor Leroy Hollmann, whose town of 575 residents was hard hit by flooding. He noted the extensive infrastructure damage and suggested roads as a target for funds.
The Boyd County and Knox County road supervisors figured infrastructure needs of $5 million and $2 million, respectively, Larsen said. The two counties could tap into federal disaster aid upon providing matching funds.
"We talked with LeRoy (Hollmann) and with Tim Gragert, our state senator," Larsen said. "If we can come up 12.5 percent for a county and state can come up with the other 12.5 percent, it would provide the 25 percent match for the FEMA grant."
Using those figures, local sources would need to raise about $250,000 for Knox County and about $600,000 for Boyd County, Larsen said. The funds would need to be banked within 18 months after Gov. Pete Ricketts’ disaster declaration, she added.
Gragert serves District 40, which saw some of the heaviest flood damage. Most of Nebraska, including his legislative district, fell under the presidential disaster declaration.
"We hope to see something coming from the federal government," he told the Press & Dakotan.
The private fundraising efforts of the past two months have concluded, and the final totals were tabulated and allocated depending on donors’ designations. In the case of cash contributions at an event, the money was split evenly between the two counties.
Rather than just sending a check in the mail, Larsen traveled last week to each county for a formal presentation. She visited July 25 to the Knox County Courthouse in Center, Nebraska, in the morning and to the Boyd County Courthouse in Butte, Nebraska, in the afternoon.
The fundraising effort came in two phases, Larsen said.
"We mailed out more than 1,500 letters to people in Knox and Boyd counties who don’t live in the county but own property there. The land may have been in their family, or they may own the land for hunting or other reasons," she said. "We asked if those property owners would care to contribute toward the roads. If they were interested, they could send a check."
The information on the property owners was located through online sources, Larsen said.
"It took a while to do it and a lot of going door-to-door asking for stamps to be donated, but all the letters (went) out," she said.
The second part of the fundraiser, "Dance To Make Nebraska Strong," was held July 7 at the Bloomfield Ballroom on the Knox County Fairgrounds.
The event included a freewill lunch, an open mike, alternating performances by the Tyndall Accordion Band and the OutBack Variety Band, and silent and live auctions.
Larsen performs with the OutBack Variety Band.
The March 13 bomb cyclone inundated Nebraska with rainfall on an already saturated state. The resulting floods created more than $1 billion in damages statewide, and most of Nebraska was declared a disaster area.
The breach of Spencer Dam on the Niobrara River worsened the situation for Boyd and Knox counties. Those areas and others were devastated not only by an estimated 11-foot wave of water but also by huge ice jams that smashed into property.
Nearly five months after the flooding, many people are still suffering, Larsen said. The initial problems went beyond roads and bridges, as some towns lost their drinking water.
"Their water supply was taken out when Spencer Dam breached and collapsed. They’re getting their water from a well," she said. "They were using a lot of bottled water."
The damage came at a time when many rural counties were struggling with tight budgets and a depressed farm economy with low commodity prices.
The flooding aftermath has affected nearly every aspect of their lives.
Farmers couldn’t plant their crops. Ranchers couldn’t reach nearby livestock without major detours, driving up their expenses. Business owners and property owners sustained massive damage.
Families couldn’t easily reach jobs in nearby communities. As a result, they resorted to lengthy detours or quit their jobs because of the stressful drive and the extra community expense.
Some progress has been made, at least on state and federal highways. U.S. Highway 281 has opened for traffic over the Niobrara River south of Spencer, Nebraska.
In addition, Nebraska Highway 12 may open west of Niobrara, Nebraska, within two weeks. The Niobrara community is planning an Aug. 17 welcoming celebration for their western neighbors who have been cut off from the town since mid-March.
When the Boyd-Knox county road fundraising started, Cobb said she was happy to join the effort.
"Laurie got the ball rolling, and I’m so glad I got involved helping her. It’s been an amazing journey," Cobb said. "People heard it and called me up and wanted to donate. It’s amazing how people pull together to help their neighbors!"
People respond when they see a need, Cobb said.
"We live in a great area," she said. "Everybody — and I mean everybody — have pitched in one way or another. I just love working with all these people."
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