FREMONT, Neb. — You can get stuck in a flood.
Stuck in your house. Stuck in your car. Stuck in town.
That reality hit home here Friday as Fremont residents and visitors alike became stranded. In every direction, roads out of town were blocked by floodwaters. Fremont, a city of 26,000, was surrounded.
“We’re trapped,” Fremont City Administrator Brian Newton said.
“Kind of an island,” said Jeremy Dillon, watching from the new island’s shore as water lapped across U.S. Highway 30. He stared east, as if to see his home a couple of miles down the road from which he escaped after the water rose “so fast.”
Dillon and others could have done a whole lot worse than to be stranded in Fremont. The city itself was mostly dry, and business went on mostly as usual, although the Starbucks closed early with a handwritten sign in the window: “Due to evacuation.”
Hotels sold out early. The clerks at the busy Holiday Inn Express tried admirably to help the stranded. They sounded like social workers on the phone as they told families with special needs who could not bed down at a church shelter that they would try to help.
Keep calling, they suggested. After all, one thing about being on an island is that no one else can get on it. That might mean room cancellations by people who weren’t already in Fremont.
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Meanwhile, at least 180 people signed into an American Red Cross shelter at First Lutheran Church, where dozens of yellow-vested volunteers were busily making room for more. It was one of several shelters in Fremont.
On Thursday night, the church served 20 people. After the city became an island on Friday, the numbers grew. The church had planned for 100 but was going to find as much floor space as possible.
The pastor, the Rev. Marty Tollefson, said the congregation had prepared for something like this with several years of American Red Cross training.
But glancing into an already crowded gym, he took a deep breath. A toddler incredibly slept amid the clatter. People were unfolding cots, inches apart.
“You prepare, and yet when it comes, it’s a different ballgame,” he said.
This island was filled with helpers. Dozens of volunteers showed up at the Arps Red-E-Mix to fill sandbags underneath the Broad Street Viaduct. Above them, throngs of people walked past Dodge County sheriff’s deputies and up the closed, eerily empty viaduct to see the swamped street on the other side.
The road emptied into what might as well have been a lake. The only vehicles that dared into the waters either had huge wheels or were boats. A child in rubber boots played in the water as onlookers held up their phones, marveling at the surreal scene.
The stuck included Amabilia Garcia, whose trailer on the other side of that “lake” had begun filling with water earlier in the day. The stuck included Nate Ingebritson, who had planned to bring his 6-year-old daughter, Abby, in Fremont on spring break, back to her mother at a meetup in Oklahoma.
“That’s not going to happen,” Ingebritson said as he held Abby.
And the stuck included the four-legged variety, specifically Sundance the painted horse with arthritis. Owner Faye Etherington lives on a dry side of Fremont. Sundance is boarded south of town. When Faye heard that the waters were rising and that Sundance and other horses were standing in frigid, knee-deep water, she and relatives sprung to action.
They lucked into someone with a “deuce and a half,” parlance for a vehicle with tires big enough to drive through the swamped street but smaller than a 5-ton. Volunteers rode or led Sundance and several other horses on the two-mile journey into town. Onlookers and first responders eagerly captured Faye’s reunion with Sundance on their phones.
Photographer Kent Sievers and I could not leave Fremont after a day’s work. But we did have spots saved on two couches in the home of virtual strangers, a Fremont couple who offered to order us a pizza and cook us breakfast.
Most importantly, we each knew that we had warm, dry homes to return to. Intact homes. Dry cars. And our safety. Unlike some of those in Fremont and throughout flooded Nebraska, we weren’t very stuck at all.