Louisiana Hunters Pay It Forward In Niobrara

Cajun cooks prepare food Sunday for the benefit for Niobrara. From left: Greg Abadie, Jimmy Cambre, Jay Cambre, Butch Cambre, Collier Milling, Paul Cambre, Jimmy Milling, Jerry Brent and Leonard Barrilleaux.

NIOBRARA, Neb. — Hunters from Louisiana returned to flood-damaged Niobrara, Nebraska, this week bringing friendship, food and music for a town fundraiser.

The Cajun event was spearheaded by Jerry and Donna Brent of Denham Springs, Louisiana, along with their family and friends. The group prepared authentic Cajun food, including jambalaya and beans and sausages. For entertainment, they invited musician Chase Tyler, also of Denham Springs and a recent Louisiana Music Hall of Fame inductee to perform.

“I’m up here hunting with these guys, and I’ve been up here once before, two years ago, and I just wanted to do anything that I could to help out for the benefit,” Chase said, adding that he would be playing solo with his guitar at Sunday’s benefit. “They invited me to hunt, but before I can hunt, I have to earn my keep.”

The event was held Sunday at the former Western Fraternal Life Association (WFLA) Lodge in Niobrara, which was purchased by the town as a community center, and is being revitalized with funds from the benefit, according to Niobrara Mayor Jody Stark.

On March 13, a bomb cyclone and the Spencer Dam breach unleashed an 11-foot wall of water from the Niobrara River. The flood and huge ice jams caused significant damage to the approach and girders of the Niobrara River bridge and completely washed out the Mormon Canal bridge.

“When that dam broke, it took both those bridges out,” said Diane Krupicka of Niobrara. “It took us five months to get a bridge.”

In July, repairs were completed on the Niobrara River bridge, and a temporary bridge over the Mormon Canal allowed highway traffic to cross the river once again.

A summer fundraiser helped raise money to put towards a new boat dock, but the town still struggles with river access.

“To me, the town has lost its culture. The river was culture,” Krupicka said. “We relied on the river for fishing, for boating, for duck hunting, for swimming, and that’s been gone since we lost the river access.”

“We came to this community 10 or 12 years ago and fell in love with this area,” Brent said. “We’ve been hunting here every year ever since.”

The Louisiana hunting group knew firsthand about the kind of destruction and suffering that a flood can leave behind.

After seeing the March flood damage to Niobrara, Brent put together a photo album and shared it with friends and family home in Louisiana.

Many of those friends had suffered in a tragic 2016 flood when Denham Springs was drowned with more than 25 inches of rain over the course of three days. Extremely warm, moist air in the Gulf of Mexico had collided with a slow-moving storm system to produce what at the time was called a 500-year flooding event.

“Everybody here was devastated in the flood of 2016,” Brent said. “If somebody here didn’t flood, I promise you they knew family and friends that flooded. Everything here is a group effort. We know what loss and devastation are like.”

After that flood, the Brents were unable to move back home for eight months, others in the group were out of their homes even longer. One member, Leonard Barrilleaux, had water up to the roof of his home, and transported as many people as he could to the loft of his barn by boat to wait out the rain until help arrived days later. Barrilleaux wound up having to bulldoze his house.

At the time, the realization that he would have to destroy his home of 30 years brought tears to his eyes.

“What is so kind and unique about the act of hosting an event from these Louisiana people is they are paying kindness forward,” Krupicka told the Press & Dakotan. “They know what it’s like and that’s why they know the town of Niobrara can use the help.”

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