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Last updated 11:03PM ET
June 18, 2018
Nebraska News
Nebraska News
Vital records worth saving when disaster strikes
(NET Radio) -

People in Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska are dealing with rising waters along the Missouri and North Platte rivers. The message from the Federal Emergency Management Agency remains constant: expect more flooding.

But flooding isn't the only recent disaster creating chaos in the region. Along with last month's Joplin, Mo., tornado and a recent fire at the Lincoln Public School District Office, each type of disaster brings its own unique form of destruction, and each can lay waste to vital records.

Disasters consume lives and dreams. And without planning, storms, floods and fire can erase history.

"We're defined more by how we deal with those challenging times than we are when things are really, really good," said Steve Joel, Lincoln Public Schools superintendent. "In fact that's what we're seeing with LPS, and my guess is that's what we're seeing with the floods and tornadoes - people in groups, cities and states are being defined by how they respond to the toughest of challenges."

Flames began gutting the LPS district office around 11 p.m. Monday, May 31. Amid thunderstorms passing through town, city firefighters battled smoke and flames as the 81,000-square-foot building at 5901 O St. was destroyed. Everything from computer servers to student artwork was gone. While no transcripts were lost, Joel said vital records include more than a student's permanent record.

"At 2 o'clock in the morning as I was watching the building burn down, (I) said if I could only go in there right now and go grab the three or four most vital things," Joel said. "The next day when the reality of the fire was broadcast around the city, everybody who went by the building was (wondering) if there were any chance to recover anything. So we all have those emotional losses."

For some, those losses have yet to come. People living and working along the North Platte and Missouri rivers are waiting for the massive amounts of water moving downstream: along the Platte, the water is from snowmelt, while the Missouri is swollen with excessive rain.

Unlike the employees at the Lincoln Public School district office, the potential flood victims have had some warning about their impending disaster.

Gary Hamer is the deputy director of the Nebraska Department of Economic Development. He said for many businesses, vital records such as tax documents and customer lists are only part of what needs to be protected.

"In most cases, if you're in manufacturing or a business you want to try to plan ahead so you have some alternatives," he said.

Having the time to plan for those alternatives doesn't necessarily make things easy, however. Susan Schaeffer is a counseling psychologist at Chadron State College in Chadron.

"That's probably the most interesting question to ask, is how are they deciding what to save," she said. "Those that are not in denial are looking around and asking, 'What do (we) need to get out of here? What is it (we) cannot lose? And what can (we) get out within the time (we) have?'"

Those in the path of rising water have had some time to decide what to save. The people in Joplin, Mo., on May 22 had little to no warning when a tornado ripped the town apart. A three-quarter-mile-wide twister chewed though the southwest Missouri town, killing more than 100 people and injuring hundreds. A city hospital, a Wal-Mart and hundreds of homes were destroyed.

That storm hit exactly seven years to the day after an F5 that all but obliterated Hallam from the Nebraska map. That storm was one of an outbreak of 56 tornadoes in several Midwestern states on May 22, 2004. The Fjuita-Pearson Scale estimates the Hallam tornado was one of the largest of all time with the funnel stretching two-and-a-half miles.

"With a tornado there isn't time," Schaeffer said. "There's only time to protect yourselves. What's interesting is the aftermath. Because you look at the tornado in Hallam - they were totally displaced."

That kind of displacement could happen all along the Missouri River, like in Brownville, Neb., where water has been rising for days.

Martin Hayes is the chairman of the Brownville village board. He said vital records aren't just pieces of paper. They can also be the operational processes for protecting part of the village's infrastructure.

"We have a small levee that encloses our waste water treatment plant," he said. "Last year (floodwaters) went over our dike, so we're adding about two to three more feet of dirt to the top of it."

Hamer said the best anyone can do is prepare.

"Basically on an individual-type basis, we need to be aware and do some ... emergency planning," he said. "How that ever entails to your individual situation, you need to be thinking about it."

Without the planning, Schaeffer with Chadron State College said what you can lose is part of your history.

"Part of the vital records is looking at our identities," she said. "Say you lose the pictures of your family. So you've lost a connection to the past."

Schaeffer said vital records must be protected from destruction because those records contain information required to continue functioning during and after a disaster. Vital records not only protect the public, they help us hold onto important moments of our lives. And while some are replaceable, some are not.

Back in Lincoln, school superintendent Joel says no one is ever fully prepared for disaster.

"Are you ever ready for that?" Joel asked. "Does anybody wake up in the morning saying okay, if a fire hits today here's what I'm ready to do?"

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