By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – Rangel Lowry was working at Mid Nebraska Individual Services in Kearney when he heard the news.
The flooding in Kearney and other area communities had worsened, forcing residents out of their homes and evacuating hotels filled with Interstate 80 travelers.
The University of Nebraska at Kearney, where Lowry attends school and plays football for the Lopers, responded by opening two of its residence halls to people displaced by the rising water.
Lowry knew where he had to be.
“If I can help, I’m going to try to help,” the Brentwood, California, native said. “This community has given me a lot, so I’m going to help in any way possible to give back, especially when people need it most.”
Lowry was among the volunteers lending a hand at UNK’s Centennial Tower West, where more than 100 people impacted by the flooding had sought refuge by 2 p.m. Tuesday. UNK also opened Randall Hall to provide additional free housing for the roughly 260 people on campus by 9 o’clock that evening.
Sodexo, the campus dining services provider, served meals to those in need, bingo and live music were offered in the Nebraskan Student Union and community agencies and individual donors provided bottled water, dry socks, pet food, baby formula, diapers, toiletries and other items for the evacuees.
Staff from across campus worked together to ensure the disaster response ran smoothly.
“It’s been a universitywide effort,” said Len Fangmeyer, manager of UNK’s Antelope Bookstore. “It took a lot of teamwork to put this all together.”
Fangmeyer, who’s lived in Kearney since 1989, called the flooding caused by torrential rain across the area “the worst I’ve seen.”
“I can’t remember it ever being this bad,” he said.
Paul Connelly and his family were among the travelers caught in the deluge. They stopped in Kearney on their way to Colorado, with plans to stay one night in a local hotel.
“We could hear the rain last night, but didn’t realize how bad it was,” said Connelly, of Mount Prospect, Illinois.
When they woke up Tuesday morning, water was covering portions of the hotel parking lot and rising quickly. Before anyone could react, the hotel was evacuated.
Connelly, his husband and their two children – an 11-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son – boarded a bus, which got stuck in the floodwater, then an airboat took them to safety.
After arriving at UNK without their luggage and extra clothes, they found the Antelope Bookstore to purchase some Loper gear to wear.
“We find the positive in everything, so it’s been an adventure,” Connelly said. “It’s been a boat ride and a school bus and now we get to stay in a college dorm.”
Connelly said he and his family are very appreciative of the efforts from first responders and the support from UNK and the Kearney community.
“I’ve been really impressed with everybody,” he said. “The people here at the college have been amazing. They opened their doors for us.”
Dave Ostrand also made an unexpected visit to UNK, which happens to be his alma mater.
He and his wife Kathy were driving from Omaha to Ansley to see his 90-year-old mother when severe thunderstorms forced them to stop in Kearney early Tuesday morning.
“About 1 a.m. we got as far as the viaduct and we couldn’t get past the deep water on the highway,” said Ostrand, who lives near Nashville, Tennessee.
They got a hotel room, and awoke to the same scene as many other travelers. The water was about 6 inches high when Ostrand went to get the vehicle, but it was nearly knee-deep by the time they were ready to leave.
“It just came from nowhere,” he said.
The couple found “higher ground” at nearby properties before they, too, were evacuated by airboat as water crept into building entrances and electricity was lost.
By Tuesday afternoon, Ostrand was back on the UNK campus for the second time in two decades, rehashing a crazy vacation that also included a pair of earthquakes while visiting family in California last week.
“We’re thankful to UNK for opening up campus,” said Ostrand, a 1970 graduate. “This is a great thing for us. It really helps us out.”
After checking out the latest campus improvements, Ostrand planned to check on his vehicle the next day. If the water hasn’t receded by then, he may have a backup plan.
“I don’t know, helicopter?” he supposed.