KEARNEY — Noah’s Ark.
That’s how Lisa Lieth describes the flood — pun intended — of nearly 300 people who swarmed Tuesday into the Salvation Army when rising waters forced the evacuation of hotels in this city. They had nowhere else to go.
One of them, Marilyn Dunlap of Moorpark, Calif., called her flood experience a “new adventure,” but she rolled her eyes as she spoke.
“I wasn’t even supposed to be in Kearney last night,” she said.
Buffalo County Emergency Management Coordinator Darrin Lewis directed flood victims to the Salvation Army, 1719 Central Ave., because it’s one of such predesignated sites in the city.
Dunlap, a grandmother, sat grimly in a large room in the Salvation Army building Tuesday afternoon amidst mostly empty chairs and long tables and bowls of popcorn, chips and doughnuts and coolers of iced tea and lemonade.
She left her home in California last week heading to a new home in Roscoe, Ill., where her son lives. Saturday she got a flat tire in Evanston, Wyo., and waited eight hours for a tow truck. She had to stay in Evanston until Monday because tire shops were closed Sunday. She drove into Kearney in heavy rain at 10:30 p.m. Monday and got a room at LaQuinta Inn, 108 Third Ave.
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Tuesday morning, after breakfast, she had learned that rising flood waters were forcing all guests to be evacuated. She had to leave her clothes and her car behind. She would spend Tuesday night with other stranded motorists at dorms at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.
“I have memorabilia in the car from my deceased son, and I’m worried about that,” she said. “If it wasn’t for that flat tire, I wouldn’t be here.”
No ordinary day
Tuesday had begun as an ordinary day at the Salvation Army. The sun was shining. Lieth was busy with office work.
About 10:30 a.m., the phone rang.
Steven Dahl, who had started as the envoy (director) at the Salvation Army just two weeks earlier, called Lieth to say evacuated hotel guests would be arriving at the Salvation Army. He did not say how many.
Lieth set out doughnuts and started making coffee.
About 20 minutes later, a RYDE bus arrived and unloaded about 20 passengers.
Lieth led them to the back for coffee and doughnuts. When a second RYDE bus arrived, she and two staff members made a pot of macaroni and cheese. When yet another van arrived, they made two more pots. “They kept coming and coming and coming,” she said.
As the cozy Salvation Army front office filled with people, she looked outside and saw 40 more people standing around in the sun. She invited them in.
“There were so many people nobody could get into the front door,” she said.
Two more RYDE vehicles showed up, each with a passenger in a wheelchair. The office was too crowded to fit them in, so Lieth hurried around to the door on the north side of the building to let them in.
Dahl, meanwhile, went into the building’s sanctuary and put on a video for the children. Then he jumped into his car and went to purchase more bottled water.
People — and several dogs and a few birds — kept coming in until 2 p.m.
“We had peanut butter and jelly, green beans, chips and popcorn, and we kept making more macaroni and cheese. We had no idea how many people we’d have to feed,” Lieth said.
As the buses rolled in, the Salvation Army did not know where the refugees would spend the night.
“We have about 30 cots here because the Salvation Army is contracted as a shelter with the American Red Cross, but we had a lot more people than that,” Lieth said.
By midafternoon, the crowds learned they would be housed and fed supper and breakfast at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. Lieth was relieved.
Heading home from Vail
Aubrey Koel paced the Salvation Army office Tuesday afternoon with the 15-year-old twin sons of her boyfriend, Mark Grossklag.
Grossklag had found a ride to the Grand Island airport, where he’d hoped to rent a car. All rental cars in Kearney were gone.
The four had stopped at La Quinta Inn Monday night as they drove home to suburban Chicago from a vacation in Vail, Colo.
“I took the dog out around 9 a.m. Tuesday and saw that cars were sitting in floodwater. I ran back upstairs ... the water wasn’t quite up to the (car) doors yet, but the water kept rising.”
“We went up to the second floor and waited. People didn’t know what was going on. We could see the water rising. The hotel lobby was flooded. Hotel workers were immersed in water. They had to turn off the electricity,” she said.
By 11:30 a.m., they brought in airboats and loaders to rescue hotel guests. Koel, Grossklag and the twins climbed into a bucket on a loader, but when they were told they had to leave the dog behind, “we’d said we’d die rather than leave the dog,” so they were allowed to bring him. They left everything else in their car, including their mountain bikes. They were transported to the Salvation Army.
By 3:30 Tuesday afternoon, Grossklag called Koel. He thought he’d found a car. If not, “we’ll have to wait it out. They expect the water to rise a few more feet. I’m supposed to be back at work tomorrow,” Koel said.
A search for a rental car
Ed Pawelko of suburban Chicago sat in the Salvation Army office frantically searching for a rental car. He’d been on a lengthy work-and-pleasure trip out to San Diego and back. Now he was headed home. He had reservations at a Fairfield Inn in Lincoln Monday night, but “the rain was coming down so hard I couldn’t see in front of me,” so he stopped for the night at the Fairfield Inn in Kearney.
On Tuesday morning, “it looked nice outside,” he said, but when he got into the shower, the power went out. “I finished my shower and called the front desk to ask why the lights had gone out, but nobody answered. I looked out the window and saw water up to the windows of several cars in the parking lot,” he said. Water lapped at his car’s license plate.
Soon, he was told to evacuate, but to use the stairs, not the elevator. “The last three stairs on the first floor were covered in water,” he said. “We went out the front door in a boat. They took us to dry land and then bused us here. I don’t know what will happen to my car. I’ve been driving around the country so I have lots of personal belongings in it,” he said.
He had no luck in renting a car to drive home. If he’d been able to get one, he’d have driven to Chicago and figured out later how to come back for his personal vehicle.
Pawelko also had to leave behind his CPAP machine which he needs at night, but Kearney Walgreen’s manager Keven Heese was able to get him one. Heese assisted a handful of people who needed medication, insulin and other items.
Wyoming or bust
Also chilling out at the Salvation Army was Alan Hamner of Casper, Wyo., wearing a brand new UNK T-shirt. He was staying the Candlewood Suites, 210 Fourth Ave. He was up for a conference call at 8 a.m. Tuesday and was working in his hotel room when he learned the hotel was being evacuated.
“It was kind of weird. I had to use the stairs. It was eerie to come downstairs on the first floor. It was dark. It felt like that movie ‘Titanic’ walking through floodwater in the dark,” he said.
By Tuesday afternoon, he said coworkers from Holdrege or Lincoln might pick him up. “I’ll fly back here to get my stuff, I suppose, or get a ride with someone in Casper. I have friends in Omaha. Maybe they can come get me,” he said.
Food and money
The phone kept ringing in Lieth’s office located off the lobby. She said she worked until 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. tVolunteers assisted, too, including Salvation Army board chairman Sherry Morrow, and Teena Fedorchik and her son Austen, 16, of Kearney. Mildred Post, a Kearney woman, walked in and handed Lieth a check for flood relief.
“We’ve gotten a ton of phone calls from people offering help,” Dahl said. “One man said, ‘What do you need?’ He went to the store to get bottled water for us.”
Dahl knows all about floods. He helped the Salvation Army feed people for 14 days in Fremont after floods there in March.
“One thing I know,” he said. “God is good.”