Craig Harbaugh, an investigator with the Dodge County Sheriff’s Office, got a request on Wednesday to check on a house at the end of Big Island Road, west of Fremont between Leisure Lake and the Platte River, whose waters yielded days of flooding and destruction in the communities near its banks.
On Wednesday, the westernmost end of Big Island Road was hard to find. The Platte’s waters had washed large chunks of it away, along with slabs of the thin strip of land that it once ran over. Harbaugh pointed out to a pile of debris with no discernible structure surrounded by flood water and fallen trees, out on an elevated bank near Leisure Lake.
“The house I was supposed to check on?” he said. “That was the house.”
Reaching this end of Big Island Road was an adventure in itself. Roads to the area were still closed and some, like Ridgeland Avenue, were submerged in newly made lakes. Along Big Island Road, stretches of road and property were covered in sludgy river sand — many residents who were assessing the damage to their properties did so while riding ATVs.
Harbaugh had his own ride. With Kyle Gaston of Nebraska Game and Parks, he hopped in the back of a SHERP ATV, a sturdy, amphibious vehicle with massive gear-like tires that rose up to Harbaugh’s shoulder. It passed through floodwater as easily as it crossed paved road.
Throughout the day on Wednesday, Harbaugh and Gaston used the SHERP to traverse this flooded area to check in on residents who had decided to wait out the flooding. They had transported some people out of the area, including one elderly man who needed medical attention. They passed out information on how to get relief, and even helped some property owners return to their homes to pick up belongings and assess the damage, which in this community, was severe.
“From here, it’s just a long-term plan of trying to get Dodge County back to the way it was,” Harbaugh said.
The efforts are coordinated by the Emergency Operations Center, an effort by all public entities in the region — including the Fremont Police, the County Department of Roads, the Sheriff’s Department, Dodge County Emergency Manager Tom Smith, some additional emergency management officials from Lancaster County, the Civil Air Patrol and more.
“There’s a lot of working people, a lot of working pieces, a lot of volunteers,” Harbaugh said.
How the SHERP arrived in Fremont is its own story of volunteerism. The vehicle is owned by a company called Fleetistics, based out of Florida. The company’s founder, Eron Iler, and his father, heard about Nebraska’s flooding and volunteered to bring the vehicle up. Now he was donating his services, piloting the vehicle on its trips up and down Big Island Road.
“We heard about the storms and the flooding and we said ‘we gotta go.’” Iler said. “This is the ideal vehicle for this situation … we just brought it out to help.”
While driving, Iler noted the debris along the road — garbage, tattered fence, a red wagon and more, all scattered about in puddles. Later, he’d note spots where the bark along the bottom three feet of trees had been worn away from the eroding Platte River waters.
“We’re from Florida,” Iler said. “We see hurricanes. This is as bad as a hurricane.”
The community along Big Island Road is a mixture of residents who vacation at their lakeside properties, and others who live there full time. As Iler piloted the SHERP along the sandy roads, the crew stopped to check in on occasional passersby, some carrying wagons, others using hiking sticks.
One of those passersby was Brett Gana, who was just arriving back at his property, which he and his siblings use as a frequent getaway spot.
Gana said he had come down to the property, where his brother had been staying, just as water had started to enter the house. He warned his brothers that officials had said the flooding would get worse, and the two left the property behind.
Gana’s four-wheeler was destroyed. Moving water had entered both his house and his camper, destroying most of what was inside. The ground beneath his brother’s truck had eroded just in front of the house, sending the vehicle plunging nose-first into a sinkhole. The front steps of the house didn’t seem far behind.
“I was sick,” Gana said. “I was expecting this because I’d seen a lot of pictures.”
The property was surrounded by muddy river sand.
“We’ve got beachfront property,” he said with a chuckle. “That used to be all green grass.”
Others in the area stayed behind and weathered the storm.
Barb Ranslem, a full-time resident of the area for 10 years, said she had little choice after massive chunks of ice surfaced from the river and blocked the roadway out of the area. Those ice chunks have since melted or were swept away.
She and six others, including her husband, hunkered down in two neighbors’ houses on higher ground.
“The river was just raging. Huge trees with the roots, just one after the other coming down the river,” Ranslem said. “We were starting to panic. It was raging for so long and so hard that something’s gotta give.”
But the houses managed to stay dry, and now Ranslem was beginning the process of addressing her own property, where water appeared to have come up through the floorboards and the garage was covered in mud.
“It’s a mess,” she said. “It’s going to be a lot of cleanup.”
Other properties along Big Island Road, especially toward the westernmost end where the road gave way, saw significant structural damage. One had an entire wall torn off, possessions strewn about beneath a slumping roof. Another was perched precariously over the water of Leisure Lake, the land beneath the corner of its foundation eroded away.
Both Gana and Ranslem said they’d never seen anything like it along Big Island Road.
And Harbaugh agreed — in his 21 years working for the Dodge County Sheriff’s Office, he’s never seen flooding this severe.
“We have flooding down here, probably yearly,” Harbaugh said. “When we have floods, there’s damage, people have to rebuild and do some things, do that stuff. But this is catastrophic.”
But there was some good news, embodied in the individuals like Iler who had donated their time — and machinery — to help.
“We’ve got people from all over the country that are offering us support,” Harbaugh said.
As for residents, the next steps weren’t clear. Gana said they would need equipment, dumpsters, before clean up could really begin. Whether or not he stayed would depend on the future of the battered roads around the community. But those were questions for another day. Today was just about looking, assessing the damage.
“Everything I damn near own, it’s gone,” Gana said.