After the Flood: Finding Our New NormalJuly 18, 2019
Just a few weeks after we surprised Becky Streff (NE ’18) with her Milken Award in North Bend, the Platte River overflowed its banks and flooded the town. As the community came together, the fifth-grade teacher turned the devastating floods into a teachable moment.
The end of the school year is always bittersweet, but this year it felt even more so. Why? Because of the 10 days I lost with my students due to the catastrophic flooding in our area last March. In much of the country life went on as normal, but here in North Bend time stood still as both my family and our school community dealt with the aftermath of the massive, unprecedented floods.
When the Platte River breached its levee, my family’s basement flooded, knocking out our heat and water—not great for a young family with four kids, including a two-month-old. We stayed with my parents (they weren’t affected by the flooding). When we went to a park near their house, my heart hurt when the school buses went by. It seemed like everyone but us was in school. I never missed school as much as I did during those ten days!
Our community pulled together
Surrounded by floodwaters, North Bend became an island. It took a week for the Red Cross, government officials and other helpers to get to us. So what did we do? We came together. The high school became the post office, fire station, “Donation Depot,” volunteer station. Neighbors, friends, students and teachers all pitched in.
“Tiger Talk,” our school’s communication system for school cancellations and snow days, kept us updated on the flood situation and when school might reopen. As soon as we had an official date, I started thinking of ways to talk about the flood with my students while making sure they felt safe.
At an all-school assembly on our first day back, we watched a video about how our community came together to help each other. The administration invited counselors from other schools to join our own counseling staff to support our students. The counselors were even available for staff members who might need extra support. Comfort dogs came to our building for two days of class and one-on-one visits. Students were pumped. Students felt safe. Students were ready to be back at school and back in their routine.
I had called all my students before we returned to school to check in, see if they needed anything and welcome them back. That first day, our class spent an entire hour talking about our experiences and reading a book that connected to many. I knew it was important not only to acknowledge the trauma, but also to build our relationships back up. As we shared our stories I quickly realized how proud I was of my awesome students. They told me how they had housed people who were displaced, made meals for others and cleaned out their neighbors’ damaged homes. I was prepared for my students to come back scared and hurt, but the majority returned stronger and proud of having helped others in need. They were, and are, heroes.
The flood in the classroom
At North Bend Central Elementary, the flood became part of our curriculum. I love to write and find writing one of the strongest means of healing. We all wrote about our flood experiences. Some students had a lot to say; others didn’t. But the act of writing about it, bringing it front and center for the whole class to hear and understand what others went through, was a huge deal. It allowed for community, understanding and empathy.
In fifth grade students learn about salt water, fresh water, aquifers, ecosystems, erosion and the water cycle. Connecting our curriculum to real-world experiences brings meaningful, lifelong learning. As we explored water and erosion, many students made the connection to our Platte River. We watched video captured by school security cameras that showed the water coming up. When we did our erosion experiment, students truly understood the word “displaced,” having seen large trees unmoored and floating down the river. When I split students into teams to brainstorm solutions for a town affected by a hurricane, they compared and contrasted the hurricane damage to their own experiences. I used the flood in my curriculum as often as I could. The more we talk about something traumatic, the more quickly we heal and accept our new normal.
Life goes on
Even after school started again, people were still helping others. The Donation Depot stayed open for three more weeks; many students volunteered their time. People offered kind words of encouragement to those around them. These simple acts loomed large and helped everyone stay positive.
The school year wound down, but donations from other schools and organizations kept coming. A school outside Omaha held a cookie drive, sending $1,000 for school supplies. Julia Cook, an author from Fremont, raised money to help replace items students had lost. Our Parent Teacher Association bought the items and called students to the gym to receive their “gifts.” We all teared up when we saw our students’ smiles, excitement and appreciation.
As I write this, it’s been more than 90 days since the flood. We had an incredibly wet spring and farmers in our rural community finished planting late. My husband, who sits on North Bend’s City Council, went out to check the levee in the late spring after some heavy rains; worried residents feared they might need to evacuate again. One day, as my daughters and I drove through a town near the Elkhorn River, they asked if we were at the beach. We spent the car ride talking about displacement and erosion, just as I had with my students at school.
Our pharmacy is just starting to remodel. Our local newspaper finally got back into its office a few weeks ago. And we can once again collect our mail at the post office. We are still waiting for FEMA to help us repair several streets and levees. As a town, we are slowly reaching our new normal.
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