KEARNEY — The water was rising, but Brian Baer didn’t know it.
Back home from an out-of-town trip, he was asleep at 7:45 a.m. July 9 while his fiancee, Jes Galaska, took their 4-year-old Yorkie terrier outside. When she stepped into the backyard, she froze. Water was rushing out of the Wood River and flooding their backyard.
She raced back inside and awakened Baer. He rushed outside. “I stepped off the patio into water that was ankle-deep,” he said.
Thoughts of that frightening morning still swirl like floodwaters for Baer, who not only lives north of Kearney on Highway 10, but has his photography business there, too. So far, his flood losses are estimated at $300,000.
“Everything we own was held under muddy water for six hours, and then handed back to us,” Baer said.
As water rose that morning, Brian and Jes spent 20 minutes rescuing props Baer uses in photography shoots. They piled sandbags in front of doors to the house. “I’ve lived here 17 years and I’ve never had to do this,” he said.
They hurried inside and began putting things — especially computers, portable hard drives, photographic equipment and other electronics — on tables, beds, shelves and couches. The water outside was eight inches deep and rising. It began to seep under doors and through the laminate floor. Soon they were ankle-deep in water. “As floodwaters rise, the floor was bubbling. It was rather eerie,” he said.
He got a text from his sister in Scottsbluff asking if they were all right. People driving by his house had posted pictures on Facebook.
As he and Jes scrambled, Baer got a call from Michael Kamler, who does their lawn care. He had planned to replace sprinkler heads that day. “They’re going to close Highway 10,” he said.
Baer and Jes knew they had to leave, but they couldn’t drive away because the water was too deep for their vehicles. If they opened a door, more water would pour into the house, so they took the screen off a back window and climbed out into water that was up to their knees and sloshed their way to the road, where Kamler waited for them.
They each carried a backpack full of camera gear, a change of clothes and an extra pair of shoes. Jes carried the dog in one arm and the cat in another. The last thing Baer did was turn off the electricity. “There was no time to even grab pajamas,” Baer said.
As they hurried around to the front of the property and scrambled out to the road, Baer gazed over his 17-acre property. “Every inch of it was under at least 2 feet of water. Some parts were 15 feet under. Our house is on the highest part of the property,” he said.
When they got to the highway, they heard a giant tree crashing. An empty 2,000-gallon fuel tank had shot up through the ground like a cork.
Watching and waiting
Kamler drove Baer and Jes to Baer’s father’s house in Kearney, where they changed into dry clothes. “There was nothing to do but wait for the water to crest and recede,” he said.
In the meantime, he called a commercial realtor to find a place to rent for his business for the next few months. Within an hour, he had a deal for upstairs space with Dave Brandt, owner of ABC Drug and Gift at 2123 Central Ave.
Late that afternoon, he and Jes headed back up north and stood on the bridge over the Wood River, eyeing their house. By 6 p.m., water had receded enough to let them back in.
Still unable to use the driveway, they walked to the front door, opened it and found that water was deeper in the house than outside, so Baer opened doors to let it out. Power still was out.
“My head was spinning. I didn’t know where to start. Should I clean? Save things? Throw things out? It was overwhelming,” he said. They knew they would live with his father in Kearney for more than just a few nights.
Wednesday morning, Baer attended the Business Network International meeting and asked for help. His colleagues swiftly responded.
“No one organized our efforts. No one even really discussed it,” Matt Meister, a BNI member and associate broker at Coldwell Banker Town & Country Realty of Kearney, said. “When I arrived at 11 a.m. three other chapter members were there with equipment, trailers and labor. I jumped right in with my Shop Vac and started cleaning water out of the cars. Later in the day, more BNI members arrived.”
Friends did, too. A football player at the University of Nebraska at Kearney arrived with four friends. Someone brought in four trailers to haul debris to the landfill. Another friend offered storage space. Still another friend showed up with 20 pizzas and Gatorade for supper.
For 48 hours, Baer ran on adrenaline. “Someone put a sandwich in my hand and said, ‘You need to eat this,’ but I was working so hard it was hard to stop,” he said. “Everyone who was within a day’s drive came. I’m used to being a person who helps, but we quickly learned that if someone offers help, accept it.”
So much loss
The water rose 21 inches inside the house, “up to the middle of the mattresses. Every couch, every upholstered item was ruined. Solid wood furniture was all right, but 90 percent of everything that had touched the ground was trashed,” he said.
They sorted things into three categories: trash, dry items that could be safely removed, and wet items that could be dried and cleaned. They had to act quickly. Mold would creep in within 48 hours. “Baby books, mementos, pictures ... they will never be seen again,” Baer said.
Jes added, “We saved so much in 90 minutes, but we lost so much, too.”
Baer, who has owned his photography business for 24 years, had no flood insurance for the contents of his home. Insurance covered the exterior walls, drywall, flooring and his vehicles, but not his electronics or upper kitchen cabinets. He’s unsure about his ruined septic tank.
He estimates he suffered $300,000 in flood losses, and insurance covers only $200,000 of that. Four weeks after the flood, he’s still waiting for final reports from his insurance carrier.
“I’ve already done battle with Mother Nature. I don’t want to do battle with my insurance company,” he said.
He knows what he’s facing financially. A septic system costs $20,000. HVAC, $20,000. Kitchen cabinets, $50,000. Flooring, $15,000. Plumbing and water heaters, the cost of professional cleaning company, even more if he ends up with a mold problem.
But the community has embraced him, from his mother’s family in Alliance to Jes’s parents in Humphrey. “Some came for a week. Some came for a day. Some came for an hour. It didn’t matter. I appreciated every single one,” he said humbly.
Colleagues from a state photographer’s association have reached out, too. They took photography equipment apart, moved it and set up his studio above ABC Drug & Gift. He closed his studio for a week while focusing on his home and property. Meanwhile studio manager Kerri Garrison took over.
Within seven days after the flood, he returned to work. “I walked in here 15 minutes before that session and the place was fully functional,” Baer said. “We’re self-employed, and being shut down for a week compounded the economic losses. We need to keep working.”
He hopes to be back in his home studio by Oct. 1. Meanwhile, “every second we have” has been focused on repairs at home. “There are so many decisions to make. If we lose one day now, it could add up to three days lost later on,” he said.
His daughter McKenna, a freshman at Kearney High School, was at a cheerleading camp in Omaha when the flood hit. “I didn’t know if I could go home,” she said. “I was calling, texting. I was kind of panicked.” But there’s a silver lining: the bedroom carpet she didn’t like was ruined. It will be replaced by a hardwood floor.
A bigger silver lining is the support of friends and colleagues, even strangers. Baer will never forget that. He knows something Meister said is true: “People in Nebraska just do what they need to do for other people.”