‘Finding order in the chaos’– Nebraska Extension steps up in wake of flooding

‘Finding order in the chaos’– Nebraska Extension steps up in wake of flooding

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Extension Team with child reading the way I feel book
Jaci Foged, Annabelle Bielenberg, Holly Hatton-Bowers and Amy Napoli are part of Read for Resilience, a new project that will send free storybooks on trauma and coping to young flood victims across the state.

Historic. Unprecedented. Catastrophic.

These were the terms frequently used to described the flooding that Nebraska experienced in the Spring of 2019. It’s nearly impossible to prepare for such widespread destruction. However, if there’s a group that was uniquely positioned to support Nebraskans during such a trying time, it’s Nebraska Extension.

“We’re used to finding order in chaos,” said Ashley Mueller, disaster recovery coordinator for extension. “That’s the beauty of the county-based model of Nebraska Extension. We’re well positioned to work with partners to address local needs.”

When flood waters started to rise in March, Nebraska Extension adopted an “all hands on deck” approach to help those affected. Everyone within the organization has played a role in supporting Nebraska’s response and recovery. From office staff organizing Web resources and checking out moisture meters, to dean and director Chuck Hibberd, coordinating the University of Nebraska’s system-wide response efforts.

Farmer moving cattle in Nebraska flood
A farmer trying to move his cattle to higher ground.

Nebraska Extension created an online resource hub for families, homeowners, businesses and producers. A wealth of guides and information was added to flood.unl.edu in the immediate aftermath of the flooding and new information continues to be added to that site on a regular basis. The online assistance is critical, but the in-person and hands-on help Nebraska Extension has provided is what really stands out.

Neighbors helping neighbors

“Nebraskans don’t do things because they’re flashy or exciting. We help our neighbors because it’s the right thing to do,” Mueller said.

In her role, Mueller works with faculty and staff across extension to help Nebraska prepare for and recover from disasters and widespread emergencies. In March, when the flood washed out many roads and bridges, state and national agencies were unable to get to many regions that needed assistance. Mueller put her expertise to the test by setting up and managing the volunteer reception center in Fremont, the community she calls home. The center was overrun with people wanting to do anything they could to help others.

The Extension Disaster Education Network (EDEN) was also ready to offer assistance. EDEN is a collaborative national effort by extension services at land-grant institutions across the country to improve the delivery of services to citizens affected by disasters. EDEN is supported by the United States Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

“So many of our land-grant partners saw what was happening in Nebraska and reached out to help,” Mueller said. “It’s heartwarming to know that there are so many people who care.”

Supporting the state’s number one industry

The flooding Nebraska experienced in 2019 was widespread and there are still some regions where the water hasn’t receded. This makes it difficult to tell truly how much damage has been done. Still, losses to crops and livestock are estimated to be around $1 billion.

Donated bales in Mead Nebraska for flood victims
Donated bales accumulate at the Eastern Nebraska Research and Extension Center near Mead. Photo taken at the end of March 2019.

Soon after the flood, Nebraska Extension started pitching in to support producers. The Eastern Nebraska Research and Extension Center near Mead and Haskell Ag Lab near Concord served as donation locations for hay (large bales) and fencing materials for livestock owners and managers.

Hay, feed, barbed wire, fence posts, gloves, shovels and other supplies showed up by the truckload. In addition to Nebraska, donated items came from California, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri and Texas. From the ENREC distribution center alone, 75 individuals picked up items of need, with several loads hauled out by the Nebraska National Guard and other support groups.

Reaching out to those under stress

The strain placed on homes, structures and landscapes across the Midwest is clear to the naked eye. Nebraska Extension is also focused on the aftermath that isn’t as visible, such as the mental health and wellness of those affected by the flood. Extension has convened a rural stress and wellness interdisciplinary team of extension professionals, University of Nebraska researchers, and mental health practitioners to work with communities, agencies and individuals to improve awareness and access to care and build foundations for resiliency.

Extension is committed to helping Nebraska recover from this disaster. Chuck Hibberd

Since April, 15 workshops have been held across the state from Chadron to Beatrice focused on communicating with farmers under stress. Over 300 agribusiness professionals have come together to build awareness of stressful conditions affecting farmers, identify signs of stress, understand how to work with farmers who may not cope with stress effectively and learn where to go for additional assistance.

Nebraska Extension in Buffalo County observed a need to help those in their communities who might be experiencing stress, anxiety or just overwhelmed with tasks of daily life. This community need led to the development of a task force to address stress and mental health. The 14-member task force, consisting of Buffalo County Farm Bureau, Farm Credit Services of America, Marshall Land Brokers and Auctioneers, Region 3 Behavioral Health Services, U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development, University of Nebraska at Kearney and other community partners in Buffalo County, came together to form a program called Neighbor-to-Neighbor.

Neighbor-to-Neighbor introduced a grassroots approach, using community gatherings to help rural communities be supportive of mental health wellness of local families and community members. Community businesses, government, faith-based organizations, and volunteer groups have opportunities to learn about mental wellness, build community, and encourage conversations to help reduce the stigma associated with mental health. In August and September 2019, over 450 individuals attended community tailgate events. According to surveys filled out by the participants, the program generated positive results, with many respondents indicating they plan to make changes based off of what they learned. One participant plans to “Listen and be more proactive in creating an open space for people to come to talk.”

Based on the community response an interdisciplinary team was formed. The goal of the Wellness in Tough Times team is to expand this program to other communities to help encourage healthy dialogues around mental health and wellness, and create social and community connections.

Caring for flood survivors of all ages

The scenes many Nebraskans witnessed during the flooding will forever be etched in their minds. It can be difficult to process the feelings associated with going through such traumatic situations, especially for young people. A Nebraska Extension-led program, Read for Resilience offers free storybooks with themes of coping with trauma, loss, grief and stress to children across the state.

The Read for Resilience team selected nine books — from “Once I Was Very Very Scared” to “A Terrible Thing Happened” — for caregivers to choose from. The books cover a range of topics, including dealing with feelings of anxiety and learning how to persevere.

The team has also created story guides for the books, which include questions for the caregiver to ask the child and activities such as making art and practicing deep breathing.

Holly Hatton-Bowers and Amy Napoli, assistant professors of child, youth and family studies and early childhood extension specialists, are lead organizers of Read for Resilience. Hatton-Bowers said using reading to heal from trauma is an evidence-based strategy with several distinct benefits. It engages both the child and the caregiver in a developmentally-appropriate way, and it also requires little training or expertise for the caregiver to implement.

“We're hoping Read for Resilience will empower caregivers of young children to support them as they cope and understand their feelings around loss or grief,” Hatton-Bowers said. “This is another way that Nebraska Extension will be there to help families and communities for the long haul.”

Long-term commitment to recovery

While the spotlight on the Midwest may have faded since the initial flooding, many challenges remain. Water is still standing in certain areas, debris is still piled high and people are still in need of help. Early-on, after the initial flooding, Nebraska Extension Dean Chuck Hibberd said that Extension would be there every step of the way for as long as it takes, and that remains true today.

Volunteer Reception Center supplies for Nebraska flood
Volunteer Reception Center, donation and distribution site in Dodge Co.

“Extension is committed to helping Nebraska recover from this disaster,” Hibberd said.

Many across the state are beginning to realize that recovery might not involve going back to the way things were before. Rural landscapes, communities and people have been forever changed. Nebraska Extension is facilitating conversations to help stakeholders evaluate what they want from their communities and what they want the future to look like.

Looking to the future, Nebraska Extension also wants to help ensure Nebraska is prepared in the event of another disaster.

“We’re using this as an opportunity to reflect and learn,” Mueller said. “We’re exploring how we can take what we’ve done and craft training and education to help others prepare.”