Michelle Padilla noticed the angry little boy.
In his frustration, the child had begun tearing up a book when Padilla walked over to him in the emergency shelter at First Lutheran Church.
“What’s up, buddy?” Padilla asked.
“It’s my birthday,” he retorted.
The child’s mother soon explained that her son had just learned his birthday party was canceled due to mid-March flooding in the Fremont area.
That’s when Padilla and other community leaders went into action to make sure the child’s birthday wishes weren’t washed away in the flood.
Padilla is the program manager at the Lutheran Family Services-Rupert Dunklau Center for Healthy Families in Fremont.
And in March, she was just one of a team of nonprofit representatives, case workers, community leaders and volunteers who worked almost nonstop during the first days of the historic flooding.
Working as a team, they set up and ran shelters — getting food, medicine, shoes, clothing and other supplies to families who found themselves in a sea of uncertainty as the waters threatened to destroy their homes and property.
Initially, about a dozen case workers from local nonprofit agencies worked around the clock, providing needs assessments for about 1,200 individuals and families — anybody displaced due to the flood — in what community leaders would say was a 48-hour period.
LFS case workers conducted about 500 of the assessments.
“I can’t say that I worked 48-hours straight, but I know that I would go home, sleep a little bit, shower, go right back at it; We all did,” Padillo said. “We had to be available to meet language needs and make sure people understood what was happening and to get the things the people needed.”
Those displaced by the flooding came from various situations with different needs — from families with infants or special needs children to adults with medical issues.
As flood waters rose March 14 and 15, the first emergency shelter for evacuees was set up at First Lutheran Church in Fremont. More would follow at Trinity and Salem Lutheran churches, Fremont Nazarene Church and Fremont Middle School.
Padilla was called in right away, because much of her staff is bilingual.
It was tough for Padillo and others to see that many of those impacted had been struggling before the flood.
“That was extremely difficult to know how hard a lot of these individuals have been working to rise above and to know this knocked them down again,” she said. “That was overwhelming for me to walk into the shelter for the first time and identify a lot of the individuals.
“It took my breath away.”
A case managers meeting occurred March 16 and LFS was assigned to the shelter at First Lutheran Church. Needs assessments started March 17.
“We had a system where we pulled each family into a private room to be able to decompress,” she said.
Families and individuals had many concerns: Would they still have a home after the flood? Would their cars work? Would they have to pay for a lot of repairs?
Case workers talked through feelings and made connections, helping to calm nerves.
Then they assessed what the people would need to make it through the next few days.
Case workers saw a host of situations. At one point, neighbors brought in some children whose parents were stuck in Omaha after flood waters cut off roadway access.
The children were incredibly scared, she said.
One frightened little girl wasn’t wearing shoes and didn’t have an extra pair of clothing. The children were worried about pets left behind.
During an emergency evacuation in the early morning hours, many people came with just the clothes they’d been wearing.
Some displaced by flooding had a host of medical needs. Pharmacies and doctors were contacted to obtain needed medication. Nurses came in to help administer it. One woman with diabetic needs that couldn’t be met at the shelter was admitted to the hospital.
Recliners were found for people with sleep apnea who couldn’t sleep on cots in the shelters. People hooked to oxygen were given the extra space they needed.
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A baby room was set up for families with tiny infants. The room had access to water so parents could make infant formula.
Being with a large group in a big room — the church’s mission center — was difficult for some autistic or other special needs children.
Since First Lutheran has several classrooms, case workers and volunteers separated some families into their own spaces where they could be as comfortable as possible. They worked to meet the needs of each individual family.
As they identified the need for pillows, blankets or other items, they reached out. Businesses quickly responded.
“Everybody in town was just so giving and helpful and it felt like we got things set up pretty quickly and were able to meet the needs of the folks,” she said.
One woman, whose child was born in the hospital during the flood, was very emotional and didn’t want to bring her newborn into the shelter — fearing the infant would get sick — but couldn’t take the newborn to her family’s flood-impacted home.
The hospital let the mom and baby stay a few extra days and nursing staff went out personally and bought items for the baby and family, Padillo said.
A hotel room was located for the family until another place was found for them to stay.
The shelter received many donations and Padillo paid tribute to the volunteers.
“All the volunteers acted like this was their full-time job, that they already knew how to do this,” she said.
Padillo commended Wendy Grosse and Mindy Chandler, lead volunteers for the team at First Lutheran.
“Mindy and Wendy were my go-to people,” Padillo said. “They worked relentlessly and were so kind to receive all the people there and make sure their needs were met.”
She praised others involved in the effort as well.
Padillo said Shawn Shanahan (executive director of the Fremont Area United Way) almost single-handedly set up the five shelters and put leadership in place.
“She did that like she’s done that a million times and that was her first time,” Padillo said.
Padillo said the city, United Way, employers, nonprofits and churches worked together.
“People really came together so beautifully,” she said. “I’m so proud to live here. We did such a great job of taking care of our community. It was no one single person. It was everybody coming together.”
The neighbors who brought in the children stayed with them until their parents could get back into Fremont. In the meantime, the children’s needs, including food, shoes and undergarments, were met.
Up to 12 interpreters worked throughout the community during the first two weeks in city offices and walked alongside inspectors, helping people understand what was happening to their homes.
When evacuees were moved from the five shelters to the Red Cross shelter in the former JC Penney’s building, community therapists talked with them, providing reassurance for people who didn’t know how everything would work out.
Things did work out for the angry little boy, whose dreams of a birthday party seemed to have been ruined by the flood waters.
“It wasn’t but a couple hours and we had balloons and a cake and presents,” she said.
Some players from Shanahan’s son’s hockey team came and played soccer with the child in a blocked off area of the shelter.
“He was so happy and I will never forget that,” Padilla said.
She also will remember how people worked together.
“I felt so united with every community member,” she said. “It didn’t matter the race, the color, the language. Everybody was there to help and embraced people no matter who you were, what side of the town you lived on — everybody embraced everybody and I feel like that was such a huge thing for us.”
Fremont hasn’t always been known to be united in that way.
“I wish people could have seen that in action,” she said. “It was so united and (there was) so much love and reaching out and wanted to do whatever anybody could do to make sure people had what they needed.”