Nebraska Journalists at the Forefront of Spring Flooding

by Brandon McDermott, NET News

June 20, 2019, 6:45 a.m.

During record flooding in March, Nebraskans counted on members of the media to deliver the news. Many residents turned to small local outlets to find out the facts. Some communities were somewhat isolated during the flooding and counted on local members of the media for breaking news.

Nathan Arneal is the publisher and editor for the North Bend Eagle. North Bend is a town of about 1,300 in northeast Nebraska. During flooding in March, Arneal recorded Facebook Live videos of the damage to the town. North Bend had been evacuated and Arneal wanted evacuees from North Bend to see what was happening in real time.

"Just as we’re finishing up around the corner from the west, comes the first water getting onto Main Street," Arneal said.

As the flooding along the Platte River worsened, south of town, Highway 79 acted as somewhat of a dike, pushing the water westward and eventually north and encircling the entire western half of North Bend. Arneal found out evacuees in North Bend were being sent north to Snyder, about 17 miles away.

North Bend firefighters watch as water fills the ditch on the south side of Highway 30. Once the ditch overflowed, it flooded North Bend in two hours. (Photo courtesy of Nathan Arneal)

"I didn’t want to leave the scene of the biggest news event that we’ve had in years, but I figured I’d better head up to Snyder where we had a bunch of evacuees at the Snyder Fireman’s ballroom," Arneal said.

As he traveled north, Arneal noticed the same thing at every farmhouse he passed.

"One of the things that stands out about that trip is that along the way, every farmhouse you passed, out there in the country, had at least a half dozen or more cars parked around it," Arneal said.

Arneal says there were countless families who opened their homes to strangers between North Bend and Snyder. Once he got to Snyder, Arneal went to the Snyder fire station where firefighters were scrambling to house and feed evacuees in the area.

"They had a fish fry planned for that night, they canceled the fish fry," Arneal said. "They still fried the fish, but they fed it to the evacuees."

What was originally planned as a fundraiser turned into an expense for the Snyder Fire Department. Then, a few days later, there was a public meeting at the high school in North Bend. Arneal says he expected it to be a finger-pointing session, where angry residents aired grievances about the ongoing flood. But that wasn’t the case. Things were cordial and people came together to try to solve issues like the water supply and what to do with a flooded sewage system.

"The volunteer fire department walked in on the opposite side of the gym and sat in some bleachers on the opposite side of the public and got a standing ovation, so that was pretty cool," Arneal said.

Days of emotion and stress seemed to hit the firefighters all at once.

Water fills a North Bend street in March during the flooding. (Photo courtesy of Nathan Arneal)

"A lot of the volunteer fire personnel who had been up for days, hadn’t had much of a break at all, kind of broke down in tears," Arneal said. "That was quite an emotional situation."

While Arneal was reporting in Synder, the building where the Eagle is located in North Bend was flooded.

To the northeast in Norfolk was Kathryn Harris, a reporter at the Norfolk Daily News. The newsroom in Norfolk sat in the middle of the mandatory evacuation zone, where levees were nearing capacity. Instead of leaving, she and other reporters stayed to report on what was happening, even as many of their homes were underwater. Harris heard from community members and members of the Nebraska media that flooding in Nebraska hadn’t received the national attention it deserved.

"It’s nice to have that validation from outside sources, to have the attention go nationwide," Harris said.

But Harris says Nebraska didn’t need validation for being flooded or national reporters.

"You need local media, We’re the ones who are going to tell you where you need to be and we’re the ones who are going to back you up," Harris said.

Further north, Carrie Pitzer is the publisher of the Antelope County News and the Knox County News in northeast Nebraska. This is where some of the most devastating flood destruction occurred in towns like Niobrara. By the second day, things were deteriorating quickly.

Water flows quickly over Highway 79 just north of North Bend. (Photo courtesy of Nathan Arneal)

"I think the most alarming part was the worst hadn’t come," Pitzer said. "They were already using the term catastrophic, using the term historic, but the worst hadn’t even happened yet."

Pitzer says for small-town reporters, there was no time for self-pity.

"Our role was really to become a communicator, to let them know what was going on and how to stay safe," Pitzer said.

In many ways, she says, small-town reporters had a leg up on larger newspapers, TV and radio stations in Nebraska because they were there on the front lines, in communities they cover every day.

"We were the fastest way to let people know what was happening and how to stay safe," Pitzer said.

She says the reaction to the online coverage in Knox and Antelope counties was bigger than they’ve ever seen.

"The response online was just incredible," Pitzer said. "In a 12-hour period, we had over three million page views on our website."

Nathan Arneal says the response to his online videos was also through the roof. It hit home, just how big of an impact his videos were having. He heard from several North Benders about them.

"Every night before they’d go to bed, (during) a very stressful day, they’d watch my videos and it would calm them down," Arneal said.

In the end, he says, the job of a small-town reporter is straight forward, especially when dealing with disasters and tragedy.

"In a town where there’s no TV station, there’s no radio station," Arneal said, "if you can’t depend on your local newspaperman for accurate information, what good am I?"

Many Nebraska towns are still cleaning up and rebuilding from the floods, a process which could go on a while. Reporters like Nathan Arneal will be there every step of the way.