OMAHA, Neb. (AP) – Lacey Geer’s two kids grumbled last year about their parents’ long hours at work. Why didn’t they have time to take them camping?
“It’s ironic,” Geer, 34, told the Omaha World-Herald. “Now we’re perma-camping.”
Memorial Day weekend, weather permitting, is usually a huge camping holiday for Nebraskans and Iowans eager to jump-start their summers.
But this year, dozens of families like Geer’s are camping – not so they can roast marshmallows and get a taste of the great outdoors – but because they have no other choice.
Jim Harvey, 59, and his family are outdoorsy types. When spring comes, he’s usually hunting the woods for morel mushrooms.
But as the days drag on, everyone’s starting to get a little sick of camping – of waking up at 5 a.m. to beat the lines for the four campsite showers or the sole washer and dryer, of dumping sewage waste, of driving for miles – spending precious gas money – to get more propane for the stove.
This is not a let’s-unplug-and-get-away-for-the-weekend camping, Harvey said. “That puts a sour taste in my family’s mouth. We’re beginning to dislike it.”
People displaced by disastrous flooding in March have scrambled to find housing wherever they can – and that includes campgrounds and state parks.
More than two months later, roughly 60 flood victims are living out of trailers, tents and RVs in Waubonsie State Park, north of Hamburg, Iowa, and across from Nebraska City.
Twenty-five campers remain parked at a city campground in Fremont, Nebraska, normally used only when the rodeo comes to town. Walnut Creek Lake & Recreation Area in Papillion took in about 10 families during March and April and still had a handful of people staying there as of late May. More are scattered at campgrounds in Iowa cities like Glenwood and Malvern.
Waubonsie’s newest residents mainly come from small towns pummeled by floodwaters that poured through and over levees, like Hamburg, Pacific Junction, Percival and McPaul. After the flooding, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a proclamation waiving the usual camping fees and stay limits at the park. From April to October, the 30 or so RV sites at the park are open only to those affected by flooding, not recreational campers.
Few who lost their homes took refuge in Nebraska state parks, said Jim Swenson, the parks division administrator at the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. That’s because several state parks or recreation areas, including Louisville State Recreation Area on the Platte River, Niobrara State Park near the Niobrara River, and Two Rivers State Recreation Area near the Platte and the Elkhorn Rivers, were also damaged or cut off during the historic flooding.
Geer, fiance Shawn Price, 36, and their two kids, 10-year-old A.J. and 5-year-old Shaye, were on vacation in Colorado when the flood hit. They battled their way home through a blizzard in western Nebraska to find the south end of Hamburg, where they lived in a rental, underwater.
Hamburg Community School District Superintendent Mike Wells quickly hooked them up with a 34-foot camper donated by an Iowa church nonprofit called Bless You Inc., and they moved to Waubonsie.
There is a huge need for housing in flood-ravaged communities. But many homes and rentals have been ruined by water, mud and mold. Some Pacific Junction and Hamburg residents are talking about selling and demolishing their properties through a federal flood buyout program.
In Mills County, Iowa, displaced residents have been staying with family and friends, at Glenwood’s single hotel or in campgrounds, said Rachel Reis, the Glenwood Area Chamber of Commerce executive director.
“Our community does not have a whole lot of affordable housing, unfortunately,” she said. “There’s some rentals, not many. Usually the ones open get picked up pretty fast.”
Price said, “There is nothing. We have money to rent. You can’t find anything. If we could get a house now, we’d gladly take it.”
Tudie Wheeler, 61, lost his home in Hamburg and said looters have been picking through what’s left behind. He and his wife, Cynthia, are disabled – he has diabetes and requires oxygen, and she has heart problems. They live on fixed incomes.
The couple initially stayed in two temporary shelters in Hamburg and has been living at Waubonsie for about 45 days with their two cats.
They fear for their future: Will they find another affordable place to live? They’d like to stay near Hamburg, where their doctors practice.
“If you don’t find a place to live, we’re going to be out in the streets,” Wheeler said.
“Every place in 100 square miles is rented,” said Harvey, who was Wheeler’s neighbor in Hamburg and now in the campground. He’s paying $250 per week to rent a camper and said FEMA aid is helping some.
Wheeler has the date Oct. 31 burned in his brain – that’s typically when water is shut off at Iowa parks to prepare for winter. Alex Murphy, a spokesman for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, said that doesn’t mean that campers have to leave – they just won’t have water access.
Temporary trailers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency could be placed in Mills and Fremont Counties in Iowa. Federal and local officials are still trying to determine how many people need temporary housing and where trailers could be placed – likely at sites in Glenwood and Council Bluffs.
Price and Geer hope that they can find somewhere to live by Thanksgiving. There might be rentals in larger cities like Omaha, Council Bluffs or Lincoln, but the couple was adamant about not pulling A.J. and Shaye out of school.
Geer describes Wells, the superintendent, as nothing short of saintly: He found the trailer, took residents’ dirty clothes to laundry facilities in nearby Sidney and rerouted school buses so they pick up and drop off kids at the campground. Hamburg, which had a pre-disaster population of about 1,000, has already lost students since the flood. Geer feels a responsibility to pay back the school system for the kindness and support her family has received.
“I don’t want to be the one that causes the school to shut down,” she said.
So they try to create a sense of normalcy for the kids, who have befriended Andrea Schoville’s four daughters, who live in the camper across from them. The younger kids run around in a pack, riding bikes, teasing one another and bouncing on a trampoline nestled in the lush woods.
Tessa Schoville, 11, recently practiced her trumpet, playing “When the Saints Go Marching In” as she flipped through sheet music spread out on a folding camp chair.
The chilly, rainy spring hasn’t helped families living in close quarters, Geer said – stuck inside, her family burned through most of the new releases at the nearest Redbox movie rental kiosk.
Schoville, 38, her husband and her four girls, ages 9, 11, 13 and 16, are squeezed into their 34-foot camper with three dogs and five cats. The family sold their Millard home and bought an old farmhouse in Percival in 2017. They renovated it, complete with new floors and gleaming appliances, and moved in in October, with her husband commuting to his job in Omaha.
“And now it’s all ruined,” Schoville said.
The house had 16 1/2 inches of water inside, plus 5 feet inside their barn. Water still surrounds the property, so they bought a boat to go back and forth. That has delayed their cleanup and efforts to rebuild and elevate the house.
“You try to keep your sanity,” she said. “There’s days where you cry, days where you don’t.”
After she spilled their story to a sympathetic employee at the Omaha Apple Store at Village Pointe, employees there have collected donations. Several drove down to grill burgers and hot dogs for the Waubonsie campers.
That sense of community provides comfort during the darker moments, Geer said. She tries to focus on what the family has gained – new friends, quality time together, a resilient spirit.
“If you just sat and looked at all the losses, you wouldn’t get out of bed,” she said.
Information from: Omaha World-Herald, http://www.omaha.com
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