Members of the Wahoo Emergency Relief Team pose for a photo in the warehouse that has become the base for relief efforts for those impacted by Nebraska’s flooding. Submitted photo
It started with an idea, and a Facebook page.
Two days after historic floods swamped Nebraska, Rachel Stone and her friend Michelle Morgan wondered how they could help — and what resources their town of Wahoo had available to those in need.
They put out a Facebook invitation to meet in the basement of their church, First United Methodist in Wahoo, on a Friday night. Ten people showed up, brainstorming about supplies and donations and relief efforts.
They met again the next day, and 20 people showed up.
Days later, 40 to 50 people arrived in the basement.
“It kind of exploded really quickly,” Stone said. “We just started asking for supplies on Facebook, and people started coming to the church basement within hours.”
In the 10 days since their brainstorm, the Wahoo Emergency Relief Team has moved into a trucking company’s warehouse at 1768 N. Chestnut St., where it’s open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.
Wahoo, Stone said, fortunately escaped much of the damage of the flood. To her knowledge, three residents were displaced, including one man who worked in Wahoo but lived in Fremont, a town that was isolated by water the first weekend of the floods.
One man who lost his home was inconsolable, and Stone and Morgan helped the best way they could.
“It was really tough because he was really distraught. He found out he had lost everything,” Stone said. “My friend Michelle had some Boston Terrier puppies, and she brought one of them in, and it did make him feel better to hold one of the puppies.”
A preschool teacher in Omaha, Stone said her group is a conduit between those in need and those ready to donate.
“Basically, what we’re doing is connecting people to the resources that they need,” she said. “Once we started getting supplies rolling in, people wanted to know specifics — what do you need? These people need water; these people need food. So, they bring water and food.”
Stone, who has lived with her husband and two sons in Wahoo for the past two years, said she was amazed with the response and the sense of giving from her neighbors.
“If we would ask for one, then 20 of them would show up. It was amazing,” she said. “Our Facebook page just exploded. I think the last thing we posted got 50,000 shares — and that was from a group of bikers that came from Wyoming with a semi-truck.”
Those bikers are in a group called the Bearded Sinners.
Stone said she and her group have learned how to respond to needs. And it’s not just their physical neighbors. Some of the donations went to Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.
“We want to have a contact on the other side to know they’re getting what they need,” she said. “We don’t want to send clothing and diapers when what they need is food and water.”
Not only did the right supplies make their way to the Wahoo Emergency Relief Team, but so did the right people. A church member with legal background helped establish the group as a 501c3 nonprofit. Another worked for the fire department and knew the FEMA regulations to begin dispatching cleaning crews.
“It’s just been amazing that God has brought those talents into our team,” Stone said.
Stone believes that God’s will — with a push from Facebook — helped get everyone together.
“A lot of it has been connections,” she said. “We need this, we get it. We ask for it, it shows up.”
She’s been amazed at how quickly the items have moved out — especially, she joked, after being a fan of the TV show “Hoarders” and worrying items might remain in the warehouse.
“None of our stuff has sat in storage,” Stone said. “When I find out that semi-trailers are coming to our warehouse, I get nervous, but it’s gone the next day, and new stuff comes.”
A Grand Island native who has lived in Omaha, Texas and Colorado, Stone said she had never been a part of any relief effort but wished that she could have in the past.
“God had been preparing me for it,” she said. “I started out with the prayer team at our church, and amazing things that were happening, and God was showing amazing things to us.”
The warehouse will be open as long as there is a need, she said.
“It’s just been an amazing blessing. There’s no way you can look at it and not see God,” Stone said. “People are so giving. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.
“If I thought about it, I’d sit here and bawl all day. I can’t really process it,” she added. “I just have to keep going, because there’s work to be done.”
Meanwhile in Fremont, which received national attention when the city became an island for the first weekend of the flooding, the pastor of First United Methodist Church said he was amazed by the work done by members of his congregation.
“We always had more volunteers than we needed,” the Rev. Bill Gepford said. “I’m very impressed with our people. … A lot of our people were not affected themselves but were out there and out helping.”
Gepford, in his second year at Fremont, tells anecdotes about a church musician who walked a mile in hip-waders for a ride to make it to church to play for a service; another who helped get vehicles onto dry land but shunned any recognition during church services; and a couple who manned volunteer efforts right until their wedding day.
“We’ve got a lot of people who’ve been incredible,” Gepford said. “They’re super-active, and always ready to help.”
Volunteers immediately began filling sandbags and making short-term shelters, he said. The command center for the storm relief is the city building two doors down from the church, and what locals call the “mega shelter” is in the former J.C. Penney store in Fremont.
Gepford said the church is ready to host early response teams, and has volunteers for housing both in Fremont and at Omaha St. Andrew’s UMC. A group of ERTs from Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, the church where Gepford grew up, will make their way to Fremont as well.
Gepford could only compare the wrath of the storm to Hurricane Katrina, which he witnessed first-hand while living in New Orleans.
“It’s not like Katrina-style, where there was a wall of water,” he said. “Here, the water just rose, and it was completely unstoppable.”