Nebraska’s Emergency Management Agency Strained by Record Floods

Nebraska state emergency officials who faced record floods this summer are now scrambling to boost their ranks with more workers to help residents recover and rebuild their communities.

The Nebraska Emergency Management Agency plans to hire 17 new employees in the coming months, increasing from its current staff from 41 to 58 workers. Flooding throughout the state swamped the agency with service requests that began in March and continued throughout the summer. The recovery won’t end anytime soon, either, as government officials undertake the slow process of rebuilding.

“Undoubtedly, our staff was taxed to a level we’ve never experienced before,” said Bryan Tuma, the agency’s assistant director. “The flood really required us to take a strong look at how much staff we had to handle the workload.”

Tuma said he submitted the request for additional staffing to Gov. Pete Ricketts, who approved it. The state will pay for the new positions using general fund dollars that will eventually get reimbursed by the federal government.

Tuma said many of the new positions will focus on processing applications for public assistance to restore damaged roads, bridges, water treatment facilities and other infrastructure.

Some of the new employees will help facilitate government buyouts of flood-prone buildings to prevent future damage. One new staffer will work on housing issues stemming from the flood and serve as a liaison between governments and volunteer nonprofit groups that are still on the ground to help with the recovery. The agency is also adding two administrators.

All will work in Lincoln at the agency’s joint field office.

Despite Nebraska’s low unemployment and the difficulty other state and federal agencies have faced in hiring people, Tuma said his department has received multiple applications for each advertised position.

“We’ve had very good luck,” he said. “I’d say I’m somewhat pleasantly surprised by the response we’re getting.”

Tuma said the agency still has a lot of work ahead to inspect damaged infrastructure, approve assistance payments and prepare a request for a new federal disaster declaration to include the most recent summer flood damage. So far, 79 of Nebraska’s 93 counties have qualified for public assistance due to flooding, and the number could rise to 84 before the year ends. Five tribal nations are also eligible.

Tuma said the agency may have to submit a request for more money to state lawmakers once next year’s session begins, although it’s unclear how much he’ll seek.

Many other state agencies worked on flood relief as well, but none appear to have been affected as much the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency.

The Nebraska Department of Agriculture hired two temporary workers to help answer a deluge of calls to its Rural Response Hotline, said spokeswoman Christin Kamm. Kamm said the department relied on six full-time employees to answer calls as well, but the overall budget impact was minimal.

“The staff here at the Nebraska Department of Agriculture came together to assist those in need as rapidly as possible,” she said.

Many local emergency officials were also hit hard but don’t plan to add employees.

“It’s been very busy, from March all the way to now,” said Buffalo County Emergency Management Director Darrin Lewis, a “one-man shop” who dealt with major flooding in Kearney, Gibbon and surrounding communities. “There’s been a pretty big impact on people who have had damage to personal property.”

Lewis said the initial chaos from the floods has subsided but the recovery could take at least another six months to a year.

He said he spent three straight days in the county’s emergency operations center during the worst of the flooding in July, followed by nonstop early mornings and late evenings for weeks. The workload eventually lightened, but he said he still gets frequent calls from people who were affected.

“I wish we could hire more people at the local level,” he said.

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