Years from now, high school friends Alex Stepanek and Melissa Dush might be sipping coffee and shooting the breeze about their youthful adventures.
If so, one thing will come up for sure.
“Remember the time we raised $232,000 to help Nebraska victims of the epic 2019 flood?”
That sounds like a joke, but it’s not. In a little more than a week, a Facebook fundraiser Stepanek started with a $5,000 goal has blown up into something much bigger.
“I made a fundraiser yesterday if people want to give a few bucks,” he wrote on March 16 after a few days of posting flood pictures. He thought that it would be awesome if he met that target.
As it turns out, people wanted to give more than a few bucks. Stepanek watched the fund grow to $10,000, then $20,000, then higher. He kept increasing the goal.
“When it hit $50,000, I started getting anxiety about doing it all myself,” he said in an interview.
About that time, Dush, a Facebook friend, offered to help. She grew up in Cedar Rapids, Nebraska, near Stepanek’s hometown of St. Paul, and knew him when she was a teenager.
The fund was growing large enough that Stepanek was inundated with inquiries about how and where the money would be spent. He wanted it to stay in counties near St. Paul. Many areas in central and north-central Nebraska, such as Wood River, Dannebrog and Columbus, have been decimated, he said.
Dush got busy immediately, establishing contacts with agencies that could identify potential recipients, with help from her mom.
Grateful, Stepanek added her as a co-founder on the fundraiser and started to puzzle out the proper way to handle such a large amount of donated money.
He talked to an accountant and an attorney and came up with a plan. On Friday, he and Dush established a “designated donor” account at Citizen’s Bank and Trust for their Nebraska Storm and Flood Relief under the Loup City Entrepreneur’s Club, a 501(c)(3).
Jennifer McClary Smyrda, a certified public accountant who’s president of the club, said the money in the account must be used only for that designated purpose.
All three of them will donate their time to the effort, so almost 100 percent of the funds will go to those in need, save the occasional fee for a cashier’s check or some other need, Smyrna said.
Also on Friday, Dush and Stepanek came up with a game plan for recipients. To begin with, $75,000 will go directly to the Nebraska Farm Bureau for farm and ranch flood relief. Both have farm backgrounds, so agriculture gets a high priority. To read the entire plan, visit https://bit.ly/2WkZ1Mz.
“I can’t wait to start spreading the wealth,” Dush said. “It’s awesome, that’s for sure.”
More than 5,400 people, from every state and even overseas, have donated. Stepanek said a friend who was a French exchange student in Nebraska shared it on his page, so it reached people in Europe.
Stepanek and Dush, both 27, have been coordinating the fund while working full time. Dush, who’s married, works in retail sales at a Loup City cellphone store. Stepanek, who’s engaged, is a rehabilitation tech at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital in Omaha.
Each gives credit to the other for the drive’s results.
“She’s been pivotal in me actually getting things done,” he said.
“He’s a heart-of-gold type of person who wants to give back,” she said. “It was great to reconnect in this way.”
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Valley man uses airboat for rescues
Homebuilder Brad Brown of Valley has an airboat. And he’s not afraid to use it, although there was one recent night when he came close.
Brown spent several days during the height of the flooding rescuing people from homes or stranded cars. He started in the dark on March 14, rescuing people at two farms next to the Elkhorn River in heavy wind gusts.
“Those night rescues were one of the scariest things I’d ever done in my life,” he said.
He went on to complete about 50 rescues, at King Lake, on Highway 275, and at Riverside Lakes. He took hay bales to horses and cattle. He found three people and a couple of pets who had spent about eight hours on a dike near 240th Street and West Center Road as an Omaha police helicopter hovered overhead.
Airboats are better than conventional rescue boats because they require little water to operate. A chunk of his time was spent maneuvering up and down Dodge Street.
He lost a few days of work to the endeavor, but he didn’t care.
“I was having way more fun doing this than my normal job,” he said.
Store a ‘lifesaver’ after Valley floods
On kayaks, tractors and other vehicles higher than cars, people tackled water-filled streets during the worst of the flood to get to Dick’s Market in Valley.
And when they got there, it was open. The grocery store’s parking lot and interior remained dry, so proprietors Bill and Josie Browning maintained regular hours. They slept there to be sure that people could get essentials such as baby food and milk.
Josie also made dinner and breakfast for the shelter in Valley and prepared fried chicken for first responders, who vociferously thanked her for “real food,” rather than pizza.
“(Customers) would come here and say, ‘You are my lifesaver,’ ” Josie Browning said. “But it didn’t come from me. It was a God thing that saved the store.”
U.P. high-rail vehicles help in evacuations
LaDonna Myers and Marsha Poole’s precarious evacuation journeys from their flooded homes on King Lake in western Douglas County were via canoe, airboat, auto, heavy-duty military vehicles and on March 16, high-rail vehicles provided by the Union Pacific Railroad that traveled along U.P. tracks.
They were transported from a shelter in Valley to one at Elkhorn Middle School. Other evacuees were taken by the rail vehicles from Waterloo. The transports were coordinated through Douglas County’s Unified Command.
Myers and Poole, after their rail adventure, arrived at the middle school about 5:30 p.m. that day. Poole brought her dog with her, a German shepherd-blue heeler mix. Myers was accompanied by her boyfriend, Gary Lichtenberg, and their two dogs, a beagle and a Chihuahua-Pomeranian mix.
Do you know someone who has been an unsung hero over the last few days? Maybe they helped people move to higher ground, or boarded your pets, or bought candy bars for first responders. We want to know about people who deserve to be recognized. Send your nominations to firstname.lastname@example.org
World-Herald staff writer Susan Szalewski contributed to this report.