Word of the devastating flooding in eastern Nebraska and western Iowa spread via hashtags like #NebraskaStrong.

Calls for help — water, hay, cleaning supplies — reverberated across Facebook.

Photos and videos of ice jam-covered fields and cattle stranded in rivers got clicked and shared over and over again.

Social media, to the surprise of no one regularly glued to their phone or computer, played a big role before, during and after the mid-March blizzard and flooding.

City and county governments used Facebook and Twitter to quickly spread the word about evacuations or road closures. Ranchers and farmers shared heart-tugging images of damaged fields and rescued livestock — spurred by one Facebook post, strangers raced to save a herd of rare goats. And Facebook groups sprung up to coordinate donations and direct help to where it was needed most.

Small towns especially may have little governmental social media presence and fewer traditional news outlets left to cover them, said Jeremy Harris Lipschultz, a professor with the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Social Media Lab.

“This locally specific information is still very relevant to people and still needs a way to get out,” he said. “Social media has become a very important way to transmit that information to make people aware in real-time of what’s happening.”

The UNO Social Media Lab looked at what posts had the biggest reach on Twitter — a Justin Timberlake shoutout to Nebraska after his Omaha concert and an ice debris video posted by Husker Associate Athletic Director Matt Davison got lots of traction online.

Taylor Gage, a spokesman for Gov. Pete Ricketts, said three flood videos on the governor’s Facebook page garnered 1 million or more views each. Hashtags like #NebraskaFlood and #NebraskaStrong helped raise visibility and money.

Safety messages pushed out on social media by the Nebraska State Patrol reached 35 million people in March — “more than the entire previous year combined,” Gage said in an email.

Lipschultz said, “The upside is social media gives you access to all this information. The downside is some of it might not be true. … People are mistaken. People heard something. It’s a game of telephone and by the seventh person they get it wrong.”

Philanthropy experts warned people to carefully vet any online fundraisers claiming to raise money for flood relief.

The Facebook group Midwest Flooding Alert has nearly 13,000 members. Its moderators spend a lot of time filtering out inaccurate or outdated posts, said Mitch Josten, a North Platte native who now lives in Oregon and is one of 18 volunteers helping to run the group.

“There’s no harm meant, but there’s a lot of wasted energy” if someone reposts, for example, a two-week-old message about water needed in Norfolk when the situation has already been addressed. “That’s what we try to control,” Josten said.

Members have helped raise money for hay and fencing supplies, post weather forecasts and share examples of inspiring generosity, like schools raising money for flood relief or neighbors helping to clear flooded basements.

Josten says he’s probably getting about five hours of sleep a night. His workspace is surrounded by maps of the Midwest and contacts for farmers, ranchers and truckers.

“When you’re surrounded by this much positivity, it’s really easy not to get burnt out,” he said.

Floods devastate Nebraska, Iowa in March 2019

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People who populate the towns and small lake communities along the Platte River west and south of Omaha were taking stock of their homes and futures this week. Some of the properties are second homes or summer getaways, but just as many are full-time residences, from small mobile homes to comfortable villas.

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After drenching rains Tuesday and heavy snow on Wednesday, Gibbon’s low spots became apparent, first as water filled streets to the curb, and later on Thursday and Friday as the water spilled into lawns and driveways before lapping at foundations. “I’ve never seen so much water, or the force and damage it can do in a short time,” firefighter Jamey Rome said.

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Thirty buildings, including the 55th Wing headquarters and the two major aircraft maintenance facilities, had been flooded with up to 8 feet of water, and 30 more structures damaged. About 3,000 feet of the base’s 11,700-foot runway was submerged. No one, though, had been injured.

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Reporter - Education

Erin is an enterprise reporter for the World-Herald. Previously, Erin covered education. Follow her on Twitter @eduff88. Phone: 402-444-1210.

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