Nathan Arneal knew North Bend was in trouble when the water filled a ditch and started crossing Highway 30 just outside town on March 15.
A dike at a cutoff ditch three miles west of North Bend had broken. Water was rapidly heading toward downtown. He started taking photos. He rushed back to his office on Main Street and tried to fortify the sandbags laid earlier that week.
Water was starting to swallow streets, so Arneal took a gravel road back to his house. Rescue squads were already using airboats to evacuate residents from their homes.
“It took less than two hours for the entire town to flood,” Arneal said. “Every street had water on it.”
That’s when he did his first Facebook Live video.
“That ended up being pretty popular,” he said.
Arneal, 43, a North Bend native, wears many hats.
He’s the publisher, owner, editor, reporter and photographer at the North Bend Eagle, the weekly newspaper that covers North Bend and Morse Bluff to the south. He’s the president of the North Bend Area Chamber of Commerce. He coaches junior high track.
And as water burst from that dike and the nearby Platte River began to spill its banks, he became the go-to source of flooding information for this Dodge County community of 1,200, snapping photos of sandbagging efforts and tweeting live updates on where to find portable showers.
“I don’t just want to sell papers because the kids in the school play got their picture in the paper,” Arneal said. “You want to be an information source.”
And he wasn’t just an interested bystander. While Arneal’s house was spared, the North Bend Eagle’s downtown office flooded, taking on 7 inches of water. The water wrecked a computer, and Arneal dropped and cracked his camera at one point. He’s still waiting to see if it can be repaired.
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In 2009, the newspaper’s office and some of its archived editions were destroyed in a fire. Now it was a flood.
“I tell people just get ready for the tornado in 2029 that’s going to take out my office,” Arneal jokes.
Elsewhere in North Bend, floodwaters crept into homes and businesses and damaged the city’s wastewater plant, leading to sewer restrictions. Classes at North Bend Central Public Schools were canceled for nearly two weeks.
But the town didn’t lose its can-do spirit, Arneal said, and he wanted to document that, too.
Local news is in a precarious state, the result of declines in readership and ad revenue. More than 1,400 cities and towns across the U.S. have lost a newspaper in the past 15 years, according to a recent Associated Press analysis. A Pew Research Center survey of 35,000 adults found that about half said the local news that was available to them, including TV and radio coverage, primarily covered another area, like a larger city nearby.
Sandwiched between Fremont and Schuyler, North Bend doesn’t have its own radio or TV station. There is one City Hall employee, and a Chamber of Commerce website. Arneal stepped into the void, filming flood update videos every day and posting vital tidbits to social media on everything from road closures to sewer capacity to lost dogs.
“If you can’t depend on the local newspaperman for information, then what good am I?” Arneal said. He noted that other Nebraska news outlets similarly affected by local flooding did the same, including the Norfolk Daily News, whose office was in an evacuation zone.
Social media filled in the gaps, too — a Nebraska State Patrol officer translated evacuation alerts into Spanish on Twitter and residents coordinated drop-offs of water and hay on Facebook.
Arneal’s Facebook videos often drew several thousand viewers, including locals and former residents who wanted to check in on their families, friends and hometown. A flood recovery committee appointed him the public information officer, so he fielded calls from CNN and squired around politicians like U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer and Rep. Jeff Fortenberry.
“Nathan, you are the link to home for all former Benders,” one reader wrote on Facebook. “Can’t thank you enough for your great reporting.”
A former high school English and journalism teacher, Arneal bought the Eagle in 2006. He’s used to the pitying looks when he tells strangers he owns a small-town newspaper, but subscriptions have actually grown.
“As a small-town weekly, we don’t have the competition out here,” he said. “You can’t go on ESPN.com and see how the North Bend Tigers did.”
It’s a family affair — his mom is the office manager and one of two part-time reporters. His dad is the bookkeeper and proofreads sometimes. His sister, a physician assistant, writes an occasional medical column.
All his hustle drew plenty of praise, but advertising revenue for the Eagle actually dropped after the flood. The paper relies heavily on local advertising, and many events were canceled post-flood. Arneal didn’t make a dime from all his social media posts. (He made a simple plug to readers: If you like the work I’m doing, please subscribe.)
With the office flooded, the newspaper’s operations were moved to his parents’ house just outside town. It was an easy decision — they have Wi-Fi, he doesn’t. A 16-page paper came out March 20, filled with news and photos of the flood, but also articles on a proposed school drug-testing policy and the high school speech team. It was important to remind readers that life goes on, even after a disaster.
“It was just a time period we’re never going to forget,” he said. “We’re going to be talking about the flood of 2019 when we’re old-timers.”