Just over a year ago, North Bend was one of scores of Nebraska towns that found itself inundated by flood waters.
Linda Emanuel, who is part of a three-generation family farm north of that community, shared her experience with the 2019 flood during a workshop at the Women in Agriculture conference in Kearney, Nebraska, this winter.
Emanuel, who is a registered nurse, works with the AgriSafe Network that was formed in 2003 by rural nurses to help improve the health and safety of farmers and ranchers. She was joined by Ellen Duysen of the Central States Center for Agricultural Safety and Health, in the College of Public Health at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Together they shared lessons learned from that disaster and provided tips on how to prepare for future crisis events.
Emanuel’s farm is on a bluff north of town and away from the river, keeping it relatively safe when an ice jam broke loose and breached a levee on the Elkhorn River near North Bend, floodwater rushed into the community. The school’s notification system became the community’s warning system.
“People had half an hour to get out,” Emanuel said.
Because Highway 30 was under water, the only way out was north along Highway 57. She remembers how farmers along the road stepped up to help.
“Along the whole 17-mile stretch from North Bend to Snyder, farmers took in townspeople,” she said. “We ended up with 12 people at our house, ranging in age from 8 to 80, for six days.”
Her sons that also lived north of town and are involved in the farming operation added to the crowd that often gathered for meals.
“Some days we had as many as 20 people at a meal,” Emanuel said.
A disaster recovery command center was set up at the local high school. Community leaders addressed the need for safe water, a sanitary sewer system and where to dispose of trash during a community meeting. Then the volunteers started showing up. Emanuel took on the role of a public health nurse.
“We helped the school library become a public health center,” she said.
Cut off from any major city, the community had to use its own resources immediately after the flood. Then the “storm after the storm” began as donations poured in by the truckload. Cleaning supplies, bottled water, clothing and more had to be sorted and stored.
The community also had to deal with a compromised water system that unleashed human sewage on the streets and ditches. Add to that the mental stress of trying to repair unprecedented damage and deal with dead livestock, and many were overwhelmed, Emanuel said.
A jumpstart to the community cleanup efforts came when 29 Ohio farmers drove 18 hours with farm equipment such as power washers and fencing supplies and stayed to provide the labor.
The Center for Agricultural Safety and Health looked to serve people’s medical needs. Volunteers soon realized that people most needed to just talk about the event, and that’s something anyone could help with.
“You don’t have to be a therapist to have a conversation,” Emanuel said.
During their presentation, Emanuel and Duysen discussed ways individuals can prepare themselves for disasters moving forward. Keeping shots up-to-date is important, especially tetanus shots, they noted. Individuals need a shot every 10 years, but that increases to once every five years if injured.
Sanitation and protective gear in flood remediation situations are also key. Participants received personal protective equipment kits (PPEs) that included an N95 respirator mask, safety glasses, two pairs of cut-resistant work gloves, a set of chemical splash resistant coveralls and earplugs.
Wearing clothing and equipment properly can prevent illness or unintentional poisoning. Respirator masks need to have five points of contact to provide adequate seal. If safety glasses are omitted from the equation; eyes can absorb materials that can transfer contaminants directly into the bloodstream.
Taking care of mold is key. If left unchecked, it can cause health issues that range from mild to severe to chronic, Duysen said.
When remediating mold damage from flooding, the women noted the N-95 respirator, goggles, a long-sleeve shirt, long pants, waterproof boots and protective gloves should be worn at all times. Any clothing used in mold and flood cleanup needs to be removed before reentering the house, then washed and disinfected after each wearing. Boots also need to be washed and disinfected.
Another concern, noted Duysen, is making sure private water wells are tested annually.
“More than 80% tested at any time have coliform, nitrate and/or farm chemical contamination. Go home and get your wells tested,” she said.
While 2019 was a record-breaker in terms of the large areas experiencing flood or blizzard-related emergencies, those risks continue whether through tornados, chemical spills, fire or other severe weather. In 2020, we can add to that the COVID-19 pandemic.
During the workshop, Emanuel and Duysen noted no one is prepared until they have an emergency kit. Recommended items for the kit include enough bottled water to provide for one gallon per person, per day. Ideally, there should be a supply for two weeks, and water should be replaced every year.
In addition there should be canned goods, including fruits and vegetables that can supplement the water supply, a can opener and dried snack foods.
Prepare a contact list of emergency contacts, including an out-of-town contact that can be reached if local phone lines are busy or totally out. This list should be in a waterproof container. Copies of important documents such as identification, insurance policies and financial records also need to be in a secure, waterproof container in case anything happens to the originals. Be sure to maintain an emergency cash supply in case power is out, making the use of AMTs and credit cards impossible.
Other items to have on hand include a simple first aid kit and a flashlight. A grab-and-go bag with a health information card, medications, prescriptions and medical documents vital to any member of the household is a must. A battery-operated or crank-operated radio can provide information and announcements.
If you have pets, know the location of “pet friendly” shelters or hotels. Microchip your pet if possible and have their tags on collars and a picture of you and your pet in case you get separated. Plan for extra pet food and water in the emergency kit and any medications they might be taking.
Don’t forget toiletries for maintaining basic hygiene, and finally a whistle, which would be most useful for alerting emergency rescuers if trapped in rubble caused by a tornado or earthquake.
The bottom line is to always be prepared, as community members with a plan that has been reviewed and practiced will come through a disaster with less stress and be able to better focus on recovery, Duysen said.
Barb Bierman Batie can be reached at email@example.com.