KEARNEY – Bob Sulser didn’t plan on spending part of his summer vacation on a university campus, but he was making the most of the experience.
“This is my first chance to stay in a college dorm, so it’s kind of neat,” Sulser said as he and his wife Jan shared a laugh.
The Madison, Wisconsin, couple were exceptionally upbeat considering just 24 hours earlier they were forced from their Kearney hotel by rising floodwater from the nearby Turkey Creek.
They didn’t know the condition of their vehicle, which was still parked at a now-swamped Hampton Inn where they stopped on the way home from Denver, yet the Sulsers expressed gratitude while discussing their situation.
“The response has been overwhelmingly positive,” Sulser said Wednesday. “It’s just remarkable.”
The couple raved about the first responders, free hamburgers served by the Knights of Columbus and the woman who gave them a ride to the University of Nebraska at Kearney, which opened two residence halls to provide free, temporary housing for people impacted by the flooding.
“Did you go in there and see all the stuff they put out for everybody?” Jan said. “It’s unbelievable.”
Inside Centennial Towers West – one of the two UNK residence halls that housed nearly 300 evacuees Tuesday night – cases of bottled water were stacked alongside tables filled with flip-flops, toiletries, snacks, pet food and other items available at no cost thanks to donations from community agencies and good Samaritans.
UNK staff were assisting stranded travelers with rental car arrangements and the city of Kearney’s public transportation program had shuttles ready to take people to local stores and restaurants while they waited to learn the fate of their own vehicles, most of which were left in submerged hotel parking lots.
Michelle Warren, an assistant Spanish professor at UNK, spent part of her day translating for Spanish speakers, many of whom arrived on campus with nothing but the clothes they were wearing.
She wasn’t surprised by the community’s willingness to step up and provide support during a time of need.
“That’s just Kearney and UNK,” Warren said. “That’s how Kearney people are.”
George Holman, associate dean of student affairs and director of residence life at UNK, shared the same sentiment.
“The response has been amazing,” he said. “This is what I’d expect from Kearney residents and my colleagues here at UNK. That’s our mentality. We make people feel welcome.”
UNK made the decision to open the residence halls around 9 a.m. Tuesday, and the first evacuees began arriving about an hour later. Sodexo, the campus dining services provider, had meals prepared by 5 p.m. that day and entertainment was lined up for the Nebraskan Student Union.
“Everyone mobilized so quickly,” said Holman, who credited a number of departments for the universitywide effort.
About 200 evacuees – a mix of area residents and hotel guests – remained on the UNK campus Wednesday evening.
Leslye and Terry Taylor of Pueblo, Colorado, were among the travelers preparing for the possibility of a second night inside Centennial Towers West.
They stopped in Kearney while moving their daughter Kai’li and her 3-month-old son and golden retriever from Minneapolis to Colorado. Kai’li’s possessions were in a rented U-Haul trailer in a flooded hotel parking lot, but that didn’t dampen their spirits.
“It could have been so much worse,” Leslye said. “We have two rooms with bathrooms and we’re being so beautifully cared for. I’m very grateful.”
“The people of Kearney are unbelievable,” Terry added. “The way everyone is being treated is just fantastic.”
That positive experience may lead to future visits down the road.
“This is his first college tour,” Leslye said of her grandson. “Maybe in 18 years he’ll be back.”