It was roughly 4 o’clock in the morning when I reported back to the command post that Valley was going to be considered flooded,” says Mike Wiekhorst, chief of the Valley Fire Department, about the night he saw his town succumb to water.
The communities of Valley and Waterloo lie on the western edge of Douglas County. A small town and a village—sharing a public school, businesses, and a common lifestyle—were brought closer together this spring when flood waters threatened their homes. At the forefront of recovery efforts were the volunteer fire departments and the regular citizens who would lend them their talents.
Valley is near the Platte River, while Waterloo brushes against the Elkhorn River. Both rivers swelled beyond their confines through the latter half of March.
If there had to be a date that things took a turn for the worst, Wiekhorst would say March 14—the day Spencer Dam collapsed, sending an 11-foot wall of water down the Niobrara River. While the Niobrara isn’t upstream, the sudden rush would enter the Missouri, the same river that the floodwaters needed to drain into.
Waterloo Fire Chief Travis Harlow offered his station as a place to set up a unified command post, bringing the area’s high-ranking emergency responders under one roof.
“Luckily the village of Waterloo is surrounded by a levee, so we were able to be protected. At one time it was five inches from coming over the top of the levee, and just seven short years ago we raised the levee three feet,” Harlow says.
Valley Fire Department Rescue Lieutenant Natalia Menard was focused on getting supplies and medical attention to those who were extracted, but the volunteer nature of her department exposed her to all aspects of the rescue effort.
“Honestly, it’s kind of blurry to remember it. We had no sleep. We hadn’t eaten. We were going nonstop,” Menard says. “On top of that, we’re worrying about our families.”
Menard was dedicated to those in danger, which kept her away from her family, including her 3-year-old son, as they evacuated. Despite her mother falling ill and the quickly rising water, the family was able to safely escape the flood zones.
Not everyone was so lucky.
Wiekhorst and two of his volunteer firefighters were thrown into a high-stakes rescue situation. A rescuer experienced a technical difficulty while trying to reach an individual stranded on a diminishing island—a complication that sent him to the hospital with hypothermia.
Wiekhorst was nearby. He had two volunteers with experience on the water and a boat at his disposal. Wiekhorst contacted Harlow and told him they were going to try rescuing the individual, but while en route, the boat became too damaged to keep moving.
The three rescuers waded through rushing floodwaters while using a submerged barbwire fence to guide them.
“We finally get up to the homes and we found our first patient that we thought we came for. Then we found a second one in [a] different house. Then we found a third,” Wiekhorst says. “Now I’ve got three people.”
Wiekhorst and his two crew members conceived a plan to get the three stranded civilians and themselves to safety. Harlow called the Council Bluffs Fire Department, who used their hovercraft to transport one individual before becoming too damaged to make another trip.
Faced with no other options, the trio found a canoe. They put the last two stranded people in it and walked the vessel through the high waters. Wiekhorst, who stands over six feet tall, had water reaching his neck at times.
“That was the most physically demanding part of that whole flood. Halfway through I thought I couldn’t move my legs anymore, but I literally didn’t have a choice,” Wiekhorst says. “It was move or die.”
The hovercraft was repaired and able to retrieve Wiekhorst, two firefighters, and two civilians from the last leg of their trip across the rushing waters. The incident marked one of several life-threatening situations that Wiekhorst and volunteers encountered to save the stranded.
Wiekhorst, Harlow, and their volunteers prepared for these disaster situations for years, but some of the greatest assets to rescue and recovery efforts during the flooding were locals. Brad Brown of Valley was one of those people.
“Well I have an airboat, so I couldn’t just sit there without helping,” Brown says. “So we made some phone calls to the fire department asking if they needed help, and they took us up on it.”
During the worst week of flooding, Brown made himself readily available—waking early each morning and staying up late into the evening. There was a constant need for the skilled airboat captain and his vessel.
“[The fire department] was reluctant in the beginning because they didn’t know me at all,” Brown says. “But they were kind of desperate and needing airboats. Mine is much wider and bigger than most airboats, which makes it very stable when you’re bringing multiple people on board.”
In all, the fire departments rescued 217 people and 175 animals this spring.
The waters may have receded, but the problems are far from over. Some lost everything and the toll on the community is apparent. Harlow recalls one person who committed suicide shortly after losing most of their property to the floods. He feared that the individual was pushed by the overwhelming situation.
King Lake, an unincorporated community near Waterloo, was one of the hardest hit areas. The area flooded in 2011, but the 2019 flood was far worse. King Lake and other low-lying residencies along the river were mostly destroyed beyond recovery. Even the areas that avoided ice flows—which leveled buildings—still face water damage so great most infrastructure must be condemned.
“There’s still people going through this. As we’re recouping and getting back to normal lifestyles, there’s other people who still have water in their houses. There are roads that are still out,” Harlow says.
Contractors and public workers for the city of Valley are in the process of restoring the city park, repairing the edges of the roads, rehabilitating the water pumping system, “and about a hundred other things,” says Joan Suhr, Valley city clerk.
Group efforts to repair the region are in full swing. More volunteers and organizations have helped clean flooded properties and donated supplies to those who lost their belongings. While nonprofits such as Valley Flood Relief have assisted residents in the area, the city has relied on its own funds for recovery efforts.
“The floods wiped out our cash on hand,” Suhr says.
Menard says there’s an increased number of people volunteering at the Valley Fire Department, and she thinks it’s due to people wanting to help during the flood.
Brown plans on offering his airboat for future emergency situations or even becoming a volunteer firefighter himself.
“I really got a chance to see what these volunteers do. Those guys are true heroes. What they do every day—put themselves out there without getting paid,” Brown says. “And there is some treacherous stuff.”
This article was printed in the September 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.