GIBBON — This time, Rick Brown knows what’s coming.
Brown, the Gibbon fire chief, only could cross his fingers Tuesday afternoon as more than 50 volunteers filled approximately 1,000 sandbags outside the Gibbon Volunteer Fire Department in anticipation of the flooding of the Wood River.
Brown got a call Tuesday morning from Darrin Lewis, emergency management coordinator for Buffalo County.
Lewis said this morning the National Weather Service in Hastings predicts the river will crest at around 6 tonight.
The prediction was dire.
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The warning indicated the water would rise one foot higher than the 17.5 feet of floodwater that swamped Gibbon in mid-March when the Wood River swept over its banks and did extensive damage on the town’s northeast side. The river then breached the Union Pacific railroad tracks and came south. That flood damaged 30 houses and four businesses.
“Five of those homes had structural collapses in their basements. Of those, three are repaired,” Brown said.
He wasted no time Tuesday.
Brown posted the flood warning on Facebook and the fire department’s website and asked people to help fill sandbags.
By 11:30 a.m., between 50 and 75 people showed up.
But first, he needed sandbags. He had just two left from the March flood, so he sent Lee Vohland, fire department secretary, to the Buffalo County Highway Department to get more empty sandbags. Vohland had volunteered to make the drive.
“I knew where the shop was, but I couldn’t get there. All the roads were closed due to flooding,” Vohland said. “I went straight north on Antelope Avenue. The road was closed. I tried Highway 10, but Highway 10 was closed. I started back down to 78th Road, but as I was going north across the Wood River, the river was flooded and the road was under water for a quarter of a mile.”
So he turned around on 78th Road to the Sweetwater Cattle feedlot. He went south to Highway 30, east to Ravenna Road and north to 160th Road and turned west. “Finally after about 100 miles, I got there,” he said.
Vohland said he’d been told that the highway department had 4,000 empty sandbags, “but apparently someone else got some. I took all that were left,” he said. “I drove back to Gibbon, pulled in at the fire department here and unloaded the bags. People are out there filling them up.”
Brown said the sand had been delivered by Mid-Nebraska Aggregate of Gibbon.
By noon, the group had filled 100 sandbags with 50 pounds of sand each. They still were going strong at 2 p.m. The sandbags were offered free to residents. “If we have any left over, I’ll offer them to Shelton if Shelton needs some,” Brown said.
Among groups filling sandbags were members of the Gibbon Chamber of Commerce, including chamber President Laci Bentley; the Gibbon Area Relief Team, the fire department, employees of the Gibbon Public Schools and individuals like Jhordy Solares, 14, who will be a freshman at Gibbon High School this fall.
“I’m just trying to help,” he said. “They needed help. I couldn’t help fill sandbags in March because I had basketball games, but I wasn’t working today, so I came.”
At 2 p.m., Vohland nibbled on a slice of cold pizza, the first food he’d had since early Tuesday morning. As for Brown, “my phone started ringing at 6 this morning and now it’s near 2. Have I had any lunch? Not yet.”
A pickup took a load of sandbags over the Highway 30 bridge to Trail Drive, on the north side of Gibbon, where Neal Olson, his wife Jamie and their son Zach, 14, were putting sandbags around their basement windows. Their house sits about 100 yards from the Wood River.
“If this is anything like March, we had water practically up to the garage door. I could’ve kayaked down the street,” a neighbor said.
Jamie said they were lucky. The water crept up the front yard but stopped before it reached the house. “It was dangerously close,” Neal said. “This time we’re more prepared.”
The river, meanwhile, looked placid under shady trees, but its muddy water was racing past. A block away, homeowners had piled sandbags around their foundation.
Brown knows the town has done all it can to get ready for whatever comes next.
“The best part about Gibbon is that it doesn’t take long for word to get around. Once we put out the word, we get an Army,” he said. “Nothing’s going to be easy, but we’re preparing ourselves better this time. At least we have a little more time to react.”