Faith kept them going

Marshall residents volunteer to help flood victims in Nebraska

Submitted photos Marshall residents Muhanned Ilyas, group leader Paul Ishman, Mike Petersen, Joann Petersen, Caleb Roseland, Bruce Saugstad, Linda Saugstad and Eric Andersen helped out flood victims in Eastern Nebraska.

MARSHALL — Even though the forecast for floods appeared ominous this spring in much of Minnesota, a group of Marshall residents found time to help flood victims located 250 miles away.

They traveled to eastern Nebraska after historic mid-March floods. They spent four days staying at Alliance Church in Fremont, Nebraska, the county seat of Dodge County west of Omaha.

During the day, their volunteer work centered around the nearby town of Waterloo, which has a population of 916. Both Fremont and Waterloo are located next to small rivers that connect to a basin formed by the convergence of the larger Platte and Missouri rivers.

Most of the volunteer process was spent helping to remove belongings and structural components from flood damaged homes.

“Everything had to be taken out down to the studs,” said Linda Saugstad, a member of Evangelical Free Church in Marshall and the group member who first got notification of Nebraska’s need for flood assistance. “We had to remove carpet, appliances, anything that had water damage and couldn’t be salvaged.”

Flood damage in all of eastern Nebraska was estimated at more than $1 billion by the end of March. Along with destroyed homes, disaster victims face extensive road closings, erosion issues and lost livestock.

Linda and her husband, Bruce, were joined by five other volunteers from Marshall. Three of them, Muhanned Ilyas, Eric Andersen and Caleb Roseland, are also members of Evangelical Free Church. The two other group members, Mike Petersen and his mother, JoAnn Petersen, attend Living Word Lutheran Church.

They said they never got hungry, since plenty of flood relief volunteers helped by serving food to those who were participating in clean-up efforts.

Many other relief volunteers helped by sorting and distributing a countless amount of emergency supplies sent by organizations from many distant locations. One example noticed in Waterloo was from a Maryland resident with Nebraska roots. Unable to return for in person flood relief, she organized a large candy donation that was provided to both flood victims and volunteers.

Before heading out to volunteer on their first day, newly arrived workers were given training in how to offer help and support to disaster victims.

“We were there to get work done, but also to encourage people,” Mike Petersen said. “It was surprising how even with the hardship they face they were worried about us. They wanted to make sure that we had water and enough to eat, and that we weren’t overworking ourselves.”

They said they were impressed with how relief leaders coordinated a large volunteer effort based out of Alliance Church. A smaller church in Waterloo, Community Christian Church, had just recently opened yet still managed to act as a distribution center for a large supply of relief donations.

“Faith was a big part of what kept all of us going,” Petersen said. “We often remind ourselves that God has a plan. In a disaster situation, when we see the many ways people work together and begin to rebuild, I think we’re at least getting a glimpse of it.”

Their relief work was coordinated by a response organization called Samaritan’s Purse. Based out of Boone, North Carolina, it was started by Franklin Graham, son of the Rev. Billy Graham.

Among those providing spiritual support was the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team, a group of chaplains started in 2001 after the 911 terrorist attacks.

The group met someone from Waterloo who had previously served as a relief volunteer with the Saugstads in Marshalltown, Iowa. Ilyas, one of the five group members who were part of a major relief effort for the first time, said he was surprised by the depth of satisfaction that resulted from small steps toward serving people faced with a crisis.

“We worked hard, but we didn’t think of it as hard labor,” Ilyas said. “We knew we were getting good results. Just seeing someone smile meant that the sadness will eventually go away.”

Rise Mitchell, a Nebraska native who spent much of her life in Marshall before moving back to her home state, said the 2019 flood disaster went beyond any level of natural destruction she could have imagined.

She said in a telephone interview Thursday morning that water still stands in many locations, including some next to major interstate highways. Farm fields are in some places covered with up to 18 inches of silt, which makes it unlikely that formerly productive farmland can be restored within the near future.

“The main rivers are fed by many small creeks,” Mitchell said. “It reached the point that most of them interconnected. Many places have been surrounded by floodwater.”

She and her husband, retired Southwest Minnesota State University business administration professor George Mitchell, live north of Lincoln, Nebraska, about 60 miles from Fremont and Waterloo. They were unable to attend their church about 15 miles away since there was no passable route.

In the past month she’s heard many stories of people facing up to the life-changing disaster. One that she shared took place in Alliance, Nebraska, where town residents who mostly had no experience handling livestock managed to corral a herd of cattle onto their fairgrounds and then provide them with feed until farmers could sort them by their brand names before taking them home.

She described a hog farmer who lost his entire operation, including the hogs, who managed to pose for cameras with his daughter and the lone piglet that somehow survived by taking shelter in a flood protected place. He pointed out that he still had a piglet and therefore wasn’t broke.

“People are determined,” she said. “They want to rebuild their homes and their lives. They’re willing to make whatever effort it takes.”

Along with that desire to once again thrive, she’s seen a substantial display of unity in America because of the many volunteers from all parts of the United States, communities both rural and urban, different racial backgrounds, and many religious faiths who’ve joined together to overcome Nebraska’s flood crisis.

“It’s really been a total respite from all the animosity and division our country has experienced in recent years,” Mitchell said. “Our differences don’t matter. Everyone just wants to work together and to help each other.”