Flood updates: More counties to get public facilities assistance; state offers disaster unemployment

The major disaster declaration for Nebraska has been amended to authorize public assistance grants for 50 counties to help pay for public facilities damaged as a result of the March winter storm and flooding.

Previously 65 counties and five tribal nations were approved for public assistance grants to reimburse the cost of emergency services and debris removal, including direct federal assistance (categories A-B).

Damage assessments are continuing and more counties and tribal nations may be designated for additional reimbursement for public facilities (categories C-G), such as roads and bridges, water control facilities, buildings and equipment, utilities, parks and recreational areas.

A Saturday update from the Federal Emergency Management Agency said the following are now eligible for categories C-G at a federal cost share of not less than 75 percent:

Adams, Antelope, Blaine, Boone, Box Butte, Boyd, Buffalo, Burt, Butler, Cass, Cedar, Colfax, Cuming, Custer, Dakota, Dixon, Dodge, Douglas, Fillmore, Frontier, Furnas, Gage, Garfield, Gosper, Greeley, Hall, Holt, Howard, Jefferson, Johnson, Knox, Lancaster, Logan, Loup, Madison, Morrill, Nance, Nemaha, Otoe, Pawnee, Pierce, Platte, Richardson, Saline, Sarpy, Sherman, Valley, Wayne, Washington and Wheeler Counties.

Individual assistance for homeowners, renters and businesses has been approved in Knox, Thurston, Boone, Buffalo, Caster, Richardson, Butler, Cass, Colfax, Dodge, Douglas, Nemaha, Sarpy, Saunders, Washington Counties and the Santee Sioux Nation.

Additional counties may be designated as damage assessments are completed.

As of Saturday, 3,838 applicants have applied for individual assistance and $12,427,992 has been approved. More than $11 million of that was for housing assistance, which can include rent for a temporary place to stay or housing repairs.

Disaster unemployment benefits have April 26 deadline 

Nebraska Labor Commissioner John H. Albin  announced that workers who became unemployed as a direct result of flooding in the state may qualify for unemployment assistance.

People who live in or worked in the counties designated for FEMA individual assistance, and whose employment or self-employment was lost or interrupted due to the flooding, may be eligible for assistance.

Individuals can generally receive up to 26 weeks of Disaster Unemployment benefits as long as unemployment continues to be a result of the disaster. Eligibility will be determined on a week-to-week basis.

The filing deadline is April 26. More  information can be found at dol.nebraska.gov/UIBenefits/Programs/DUA.

Five-day disaster centers open in three counties

Joint federal-state Disaster Recovery Centers will open in Boone, Colfax and Thurston Counties.

The locations, dates and hours:

Boone County, St. Edward Fire Hall, April 8-12, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Colfax County, County Court Community Room, Schuyler, April 16-20, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Thurston County, Pender Community Center, April 15-19, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

At the centers, recovery specialists from FEMA and the U.S. Small Business Administration will provide information on available services and assistance programs and help survivors complete or check the status of their applications. They can provide referrals and help with appeals.

Homeowners, renters and business owners in Boone, Buffalo, Butler, Cass, Colfax, Custer, Dodge, Douglas, Knox, Nemaha, Richardson, Sarpy, Saunders, Thurston and Washington Counties and the Santee Sioux Nation may apply for assistance for uninsured and underinsured damage and losses resulting from severe winter storm, straight-line winds and flooding.

Survivors can visit any center; for locations, go to FEMA.gov/DRC or call the helpline at 800-621-3362 or (TTY) 800-462-7585.

From pleas for donations to photos of devastation, social media played big role during flood

Word of the devastating flooding in eastern Nebraska and western Iowa spread via hashtags like #NebraskaStrong.

Calls for help — water, hay, cleaning supplies — reverberated across Facebook.

Photos and videos of ice jam-covered fields and cattle stranded in rivers got clicked and shared over and over again.

Social media, to the surprise of no one regularly glued to their phone or computer, played a big role before, during and after the mid-March blizzard and flooding.

City and county governments used Facebook and Twitter to quickly spread the word about evacuations or road closures. Ranchers and farmers shared heart-tugging images of damaged fields and rescued livestock — spurred by one Facebook post, strangers raced to save a herd of rare goats. And Facebook groups sprung up to coordinate donations and direct help to where it was needed most.

Small towns especially may have little governmental social media presence and fewer traditional news outlets left to cover them, said Jeremy Harris Lipschultz, a professor with the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Social Media Lab.

“This locally specific information is still very relevant to people and still needs a way to get out,” he said. “Social media has become a very important way to transmit that information to make people aware in real-time of what’s happening.”

The UNO Social Media Lab looked at what posts had the biggest reach on Twitter — a Justin Timberlake shoutout to Nebraska after his Omaha concert and an ice debris video posted by Husker Associate Athletic Director Matt Davison got lots of traction online.

The lab has also been working with the Rural Futures Institute on a project about increasing rural civic engagement — Nebraska City, Ashland and Ravenna are the first participating communities.

As floodwaters rose, the Ashland Fire Department was posting videos from the windshield of a fire truck showing how badly some roads were submerged, Lipschultz said.

Taylor Gage, a spokesman for Gov. Pete Ricketts, said three flood videos on the governor’s Facebook page garnered 1 million or more views each. Hashtags like #NebraskaFlood and #NebraskaStrong helped raise visibility and money.

Safety messages pushed out on social media by the Nebraska State Patrol reached 35 million people in March — “more than the entire previous year combined,” Gage said in an email.

Lipschultz said, “The upside is social media gives you access to all this information. The downside is some of it might not be true. … People are mistaken. People heard something. It’s a game of telephone and by the seventh person they get it wrong.”

Philanthropy experts warned people to carefully vet any online fundraisers claiming to raise money for flood relief.

The Facebook group Midwest Flooding Alert has nearly 13,000 members. Its moderators spend a lot of time filtering out inaccurate or outdated posts, said Mitch Josten, a North Platte native who now lives in Oregon and is one of 18 volunteers helping to run the group.

“There’s no harm meant, but there’s a lot of wasted energy” if someone reposts, for example, a two-week-old message about water needed in Norfolk when the situation has already been addressed. “That’s what we try to control,” Josten said.

Members have helped raise money for hay and fencing supplies, post weather forecasts and share examples of inspiring generosity, like schools raising money for flood relief or neighbors helping to clear flooded basements.

Josten says he’s probably getting about five hours of sleep a night. His workspace is surrounded by maps of the Midwest and contacts for farmers, ranchers and truckers.

“When you’re surrounded by this much positivity, it’s really easy not to get burnt out,” he said.