March 20, 2019, 11:45 a.m.
Flood waters have started to recede in eastern Nebraska. In its wake there’s plenty of relief work to be done. In Fremont, volunteers have set up an extensive donation center.
“We’re coming over here because the next thing we need is wash cloths and towels, and we just hope there’s some,” said Joanne Lehman. Her day job is substitute teaching in Fremont Public Schools. Today, she’s a shopper. A volunteer shopper, that is, at the donation center in Fremont.
“It’s spring break for us. And so it really worked perfectly because like, the middle school, yes, it’s a shelter. Thank you. And so, otherwise, it would fall on the churches,” Lehman said.
There are churches acting as shelters as well in Fremont, three in fact. They’re providing a safe place to stay for people who had to evacuate their homes.
The donation center serves a different purpose. People whose homes flooded may need some supplies to help get their homes back up and running. Lehman goes around the large auditorium space picking up donated items that a family has requested.
“And the list varies because it tells you how many are in the family, whether they need clothes, everybody needs cleaning supplies, dish-washing soap, those basic things. Sheets, blankets,” Lehman said.
Joanne Lehman (Photo by Allison Mollenkamp, NET News)
So where did it all come from?
Brent Harrill is one of the organizers of the donation center. By day he’s a principal at Johnson Crossing Academic Center.
“The items have all come from local donations. We’ve had surrounding communities send stuff in. We had a trailer come in from Carroll, Iowa, last night full of supplies. And we had a 53-foot semi come in from North Platte, Nebraska. So we’ve had donations come from all across the Midwest,” Harrill said.
There have been so many donations, the center had to move. It started at Claremore Elementary School in Fremont on Sunday, but they outgrew the space and had to move to the city auditorium on Monday. The support from volunteers has also been extensive.
“We’ve had hundreds of volunteers sign up. They’ve been taking shifts. We’ve had some people that have worked non-stop. They’re out here sunup to sundown. And it’s just been amazing. I bet overall, we’ve probably had more than 500 volunteers come through the door.”
Businesses in the area are helping out too. Sunday night Hy-Vee brought a convoy of trucks to restock the local store, as well as supplying food to evacuation sites. Walmart has been helping the donation center.
“Walmart just showed up probably about 30 minutes ago. They sent 20 of their employees over here to help with this. They’ve been great. They brought over, I think, four truckloads of water and supplies yesterday. And then, as you can see, we’ve got several of their shopping carts here that we’re using to get merchandise out with,” Harrill said.
Lehman is a pro with her cart, navigating through the aisles to find everything on the list she’s filling.
“Okay, we’re good here. So now we gotta go back over to the other side,” Lehman said.
She’s also watched the requests evolve as flooding recedes and people get back to their homes to assess the damage.
Donated water and toothpaste. (Photo by Allison Mollenkamp, NET News)
“First it was more, you know, the pillows, the blankets. And now we’re getting more people asking for buckets and mops and bleach. Lots of bleach,” Lehman said.
Some residents are still making their way back to their homes. Peggy Polland is from Valley, Nebraska. She visited the donation center for supplies for the second time on Tuesday. She lived through the 2011 flood, as well as one in 1978.
“The one now is worse than what we had. Cause we got a lot of the streets that buckled,” Polland said.
Polland planned to venture back to assess the damage Tuesday afternoon.
Volunteers said they were feeling fortunate for being in a position to help. Erica Lesko waited outside the donation center to help someone load supplies into their car.
“Luckily I live on the on the west side of town, so I was nice and dry, but I know a lot of people in town,” Lesko said.
Lesko, like other volunteers, couldn’t pinpoint who exactly started the donation center.
“I’m not a hundred percent sure. I think it’s kind of a community thing at this point. Anybody and everybody that can bring stuff, do stuff, at this point they’re all just showing up,” Lesko said.
That spirit of community is evident at the donation center. Kids on spring break restock tables. People in jackets toss supplies from trucks outside into the back door of the auditorium. At least one woman acts as an impromptu translator, reading English lists of supplies in Spanish for those who need it.
Lehman’s house is also dry, but she feels compelled to be at the auditorium, helping her neighbors.
“I just keep coming back, because I am so grateful that I don’t have water in my basement, so it’s the least I can do to be here instead of sitting on my step crying,” Lehman said.
Relief efforts across the state will continue in the coming days and weeks.