When March flooding devastated the Husker State, Laurie Larsen had two things to offer her fellow Nebraskans — her music and her media connections.
The Bloomfield woman performs with the OutBack Variety Band and works for News Channel Nebraska. She has combined the two resources, creating this Sunday’s day-long fundraiser featuring two bands, two meals and two auctions.
“Dance To Make Nebraska Strong” will fill the American Legion Ballroom on the Knox County Fairgrounds in Bloomfield. The event runs from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., with freewill offerings for the meals.
“We’re hoping for a good turnout Sunday,” Larsen said. “We’re trying to raise a large amount of money to help all the people in our area who are still affected by flooding.”
The money raised will go toward repair of the flood-ravaged roads in Boyd and Knox counties of north-central and northeast Nebraska. Plans call for the locally-generated money to be used as matching funds toward a federal grant.
Sunday’s event starts with an 11 a.m. lunch provided by the Crofton Community Club.
The music begins with an open microphone from 11 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. At 1 p.m., The Tyndall Accordion Club and the OutBack Variety Band start alternating sets. In addition, bids will be taken for the silent auction.
At 5 p.m., a dinner provided by Pinnacle Bank of Verdigre will be served. At 6 p.m., the evening features a live auction, results of the silent auction and a raffle drawing.
The donated items include University of Nebraska tickets, Kansas City Chiefs tickets, hotel stays, and gift baskets and certificates, to name a few prizes.
HIT BY DISASTER
Many Nebraskans have lived with damaged infrastructure for nearly four months. The aftermath has affected nearly every aspect of their lives.
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 in north-central and northeast Nebraska. Those counties and others were devastated not only by an estimated 11-foot wave of water but also huge ice jams that smashed into property.
Farmers couldn’t plant their crops. Ranchers couldn’t reach nearby livestock without major detours. Business owners and property owners sustained massive damage. Families couldn’t reach jobs in nearby communities.
Larsen performs with the OutBack Variety Band which, with the Tyndall Accordion Club, sought a way to help neighbors who were suffering.
They reached out to Verdigre, Nebraska, Mayor Leroy Hollmann, whose town of 575 residents was hard hit by flooding.
“Leroy said, ‘We have damaged homes, but what’s really bad right now are the roads. I don’t know what we can do. They’re still bad (months later),’” Larsen said. “He told how some people have quit their jobs (in other communities) because their commute tears up their vehicles. Others need to make such long detours to work that it’s not worth the additional travel time and cost.”
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 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.
TAKING ON THE CHALLENGE
The challenge loomed huge, but Larsen saw the need and reached out to two media colleagues. She contacted Shirley Cobb, a sales representative for O’Neill, Nebraska, radio station KBRX. She also spoke with co-worker Andy Classen at News Channel Nebraska. Classen is a field reporter and sports broadcaster for the television channel.
“We reached out to KBRK, because they cover Boyd County, and Shirley got on board with it. And I talked with Andy because he grew up in Lynch, Nebraska, that was hit hard by the flooding,” Larsen said. “The three of us talked about it and decided to go forward with this. We have volunteers who are helping, but the three of us are coordinating (the fundraiser) and soliciting auction items.”
Cobb said she was happy to join the effort and has already seen a strong response.
“Laurie got the ball rolling, and I’m so glad I got involved helping her. It’s been an amazing journey,” Cobb said. “We have ads running (at the radio station) and are (covering) it on our news. People hear it and call me up and want to donate. It’s amazing how people pull together to help their neighbors!”
People respond when they see a need, Cobb said.
“People want to donate and to help raise money for their communities,” she said. “KBRX was taking donations when this (flood relief effort) all started, and there was an overwhelming response that’s still going on.”
At Sunday’s event, donors can write checks designating which county should get the money. However, checks should indicate the money is for road improvements. Cash donations will be split evenly between the two counties.
The fundraising effort has raised money even before Sunday’s event, Larsen said. More than 1,500 letters were sent to non-resident property owners in Knox and Boyd counties. 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,” she said. “If they were interested, they could send a check. As of now, we have $24,500. They’ve just been great about it.”
Four months after the flooding, many people are still suffering, Larsen said. The problem goes beyond roads and bridges, as some towns have lost their drinking water, she said.
“Their water supply was taken out when Spencer Dam breached and collapsed. They’re getting their water from a well,” she said. “They’re using it for irrigation and other purposes. They’re doing the best they can, but they can’t drink it. They are using a lot of bottled water.”
Cobb described families who faced financial and other hardships because of the flooded or damaged roads and bridges.
“One husband lost (the job) where he was working, and his wife has to drive 60 miles one way to get to work,” she said. “Another couple is running a business plus taking care of their cattle. They have to travel (far) out of their way.”
What used to be a short drive now creates lengthy detours and much longer work days with additional stress, Cobb said.
“People who work (in other communities) have to get up earlier. It takes them an hour or longer to get to work, and they’re tired when they get back home (after the longer day),” she said.
Hopefully, highway departments can soon at least partially open roads and bridges, Cobb added. In the meantime, many motorists are suffering flat tires from driving on damaged gravel roads.
Some people have given up on travel until conditions improve, Larsen said.
“I’ve known people who have quit their jobs because of the extra travel time and costs. For them, it just wasn’t worth it,” she said. “I’ve even had people say they would love to come to Sunday’s fundraiser, but they just don’t want to make the long trip. They may need to drive over to Pickstown, travel through South Dakota and then turn back into Nebraska just to reach Bloomfield.”
Regardless of the money raised Sunday, Larsen hopes the afternoon of music will provide an important benefit — socializing and enjoyment.
“I know people who are going through really hard times. They shouldn’t be alone, and talking to other people helps them get through it,” she said. “I also think music can be so important because it can help people deal with depression.”
Cobb agreed, anticipating a fun afternoon and evening with neighbors and friends. She noted people’s eagerness to help each other through the tough times.
“We live in a great area,” she said. “Everybody — and I mean everybody — has pitched in one way or another. I just love working with all these people.”
Donation checks can be made to either county. For Boyd County, send it to the Boyd County Treasurer c/o Road Improvement, Box 25, Butte, NE 68722. For Knox County, send it to the Knox County Treasurer c/o Road Improvement, Box 166, Center, NE 68724.
Please put a note on the check that it is for road improvement.
The drop-off locations for auction items are: Bloomfield, Gil Larsen home at 201 South Clark Street; Butte, Boyd County Courthouse; Crofton, Land And Lake Realty; Spencer, Farmers State Bank; Lynch, Three River Telephone; Verdigre, City Office; Niobrara, Sportsmen’s; Winnetoon, the Winnetoon Mall; Creighton, Gragert’s Grocery; Wausa, Commercial State Bank; O’Neill, KBRX radio station.
Follow @RDockendorf on Twitter.