For Some, Stress Is Part of the Damage Left Behind in Nebraska Floods
By Bill Kelly , Senior Producer/Reporter Nebraska Public Media
Sept. 5, 2019, 5:51 p.m. ·
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On Labor Day weekend Diane Krupicka threw a party.
She and her husband Calvin owns Niobrara Adventures, a kayak and float trip business and they decided to invite the town of Niobrara to join them on the banks of the river for the last of the sunburns of summer and a few laughs.
Diane was all smiles coordinating party games like a camp counselor and handing out door prizes. She told nearly everyone there this is what she needed after this dismal year.
Over the previous six months she knew something wasn't entirely right. She worked as a psychiatric nurse before she got into the river recreation business.
"I am not going to deny I got some PTSD," she tells a visitor. I can talk it about some times, and I'll start crying again."
"It" is the March 2019 flood.
Make that plural.
First, there was the high water brought on by rains washing across frozen land and into creeks and streams in Knox County. She stopped to take pictures of Verdigre Creek and barely recognized the stream.
"On the 13th it was a raging river, probably 30 feet deep. And it scared me."
For someone who makes her living advertising a relaxing day on the water, the experience was unsettling.
"I've only seen it as a nice little tame river that people can just play in and enjoy," she said. "I was scared of it. It was it was a scary river that day."
The second flood proved catastrophic along a 40 mile stretch of the Niobrara River after the failure of Spencer Dam unleashed a mile-wide ice flow.
Diane and Calvin could see it move downriver from their hillside house. Opening the door of their deck, "we heard this roar down here" as the ice flow tore across the flats and into the wooded areas.
"It was pretty tough," Calvin recalls, as he looked "down from the hill and everything just getting wiped out, especially your business." They could see the mass of ice had already carried their boat dock away.
Farther downstream they knew another set of businesses on the lowlands west of the Village of Niobrara faced certain destruction as the unstoppable ice "just pushed everything" to the Missouri River.
"We lost our livelihood," said Diane. "We saw the farm that's 150 years old, never been flooded, get destroyed. We saw my brother in law's cattle be stuck in a little tiny island overnight. Some didn't make it."
Nearly six months later, she catches herself doing an almost imperceptible reality check.
"Almost every day now I look at this to see what it looks like down here," she said gesturing to the river. "I do that every time to see what does it look like now. And (to be certain) it looks like normal."
She says it's as if she wants to make sure she's safe.
Along with the almost compulsive checks of the river, Diane found herself having flashbacks.
"I kept seeing pictures of things floating down the river that day."
"Mental images?" the visitor asked.
"Yes, bales and trees and cows floating down the river."
Those are what tipped off Diane she needed to address some of the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
"I'm sure I'll get through it," she says with optimism in her voice. "But it brings back a lot of feelings and emotions."
That deep sadness is not an uncommon feeling around Nebraska since the floods came, according to Jackie Meyer, a mental health specialist with the Counseling and Enrichment Center in O'Neill, Nebraska.
As soon as the magnitude of the disaster became apparent, Meyer says she knew many Nebraskans would be coping with depression and PTSD. The loss of a home, or a business, or seeing a community in distress causes trauma, Meyer explained. It's almost as if someone died.
"Something died here, but it was their whole life. Everything they've worked for. That becomes a trauma."
Many livestock producers lost more than property and belongings. Some witnessed the destruction of an entire herd of animals.
"As you look at your thousands of cows that have just died, your whole everything (the result is) Post Traumatic Stress," she says. "It was their whole life, everything they've worked for. So that becomes trauma."
Even those who lost nothing in the floods can find the mental stress can be overwhelming. She says, "it's the helplessness that a person feels."
"It's like survivor's guilt," said Meyer. "It's like the guy who watched his buddies killed in an explosion. Why did I live? And why did God save me? And these other farmers didn't? That's what it is: survivor's guilt."
She said with no way to quickly fix the damage to property; it's important to address the impact it has on the function of the mind.
"Trauma is anything that affects us neurologically," she said, and that has an impact on brain function and how we think. And so that's why we need counseling."
Meyer has been frustrated that so few Nebraskans are taking advantage of counseling. She has spoken to other mental health professionals in the region and found none that have seen an increase in their workload from flood-related depression.
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"Looking at mental health is usually not something they want to look at because that means something bad. That means there's a stigma that goes with it with a lot of people that I must be mentally ill, and they're not. It's depression; it's just sadness.
Family members and friends are sometimes at a loss in how to encourage someone to seek outside help. She suggests something akin to a buddy system.
"If I go with you, will you go and just talk about the options?" Meyer suggests as a way to start the conversation. "In that way, they won't feel so alone. For somebody who's never, ever done (counseling) it's just scary."
Diane Krupicka has been coping several ways. The Labor Day beach party was one outlet.
"We made our motto' turning devastation into relaxation,' she said while the band played in the background. "Just to take to relax again; to enjoy yourself, to do what you did that feels normal, that feels fun."
"I hate to admit it. But in a way, this party today is almost therapy for me," Diane told a visitor.
It is a challenge for her to concede that the flood-impacted her frame of mind.
"You don't want to feel weak (and) the flood made you very weak that day. It made you feel like you were a small person in this environment."
Did all this catch her off guard?
Oh, yeah, definitely," she answered quickly. "I like to have control of myself, and what I do, and that was all gone that day because there was nothing we could do. You saw things happening. We saw things get washed away has nothing to do about it."
Even the site of the party provided nagging reminders of the flood. Calvin spent weeks cleaning up debris left behind in March. The icebergs left behind huge holes that required filling.
While talking to a visitor, he gestured over to clutch of trees where the beer drinkers convened. "You can tell by the trees how the scarred up and how high the ice was right here where we're standing with 20 feet of water, and that's why we're shut down."
With its boat dock destroyed, Niobrara Adventures did not entertain a single kayaker this summer. Getting the business up and running again is another way to deal with the stress of the tragedy.
"It's just going to take a little time to get back to the norm," said Calvin. Once we start getting people out on the river, then I'll feel better about everything."
Getting back on the river was also a comfort to Diane. Facing off with the Verdigre River that scared her so in March became a personal challenge.
Even once she'd decided to make a kayak run down the still fast-moving creek, she found herself haunted by more of the flashbacks, "and I kept seeing that and thinking, 'am I going to be in that same situation on that kayak?'"
Sliding the boat into the water became a comfort, not a threat.
"And, you know, once we got going, it was it was fine," she said. "And I finally got to like it again.”
There can be small victories along the way, whether it's conquering a stream that, for a time, was an enemy, or holding a beach party for families in town where laughter could drown out the background noise of recent history.
I think time heals," Diane said. "This is normal for me now, being down here by this river. It's normal for me to see people have fun down here."
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