‘We thought we could pull this off:’ Twin River adapts after school district split by floods

March 24, 2019

It’s 11 miles north on Nebraska 39 from Sam Robb’s place in Silver Creek to the parking lot of Twin River High School in Genoa.

Or, at least it was before March 13, when the Loup River ripped down from the Sandhills, a battering ram of icy water and concrete-colored slabs of ice that devoured dams, roads and bridges on its way to meet the Platte River.

Nebraska 39, a gently curving highway between the river valleys, is the connective tissue between Genoa and Silver Creek, which along with Monroe consolidated to form Twin River Public Schools in 2001.

When the highway re-emerged from the water and darkness March 14, it had been gnawed away by floodwaters that burst through a nearby canal levee and scampered down the ditches on either side.

A causeway over a natural overflow for the river south of the main Loup River bridge had been assaulted by the ice chunks, tearing away the bridge deck in at least two places.

“Highway 39 on the other side of that bridge is the main channel of the river right now,” said Denise Ziemba, the emergency manager who oversees Boone, Merrick and Nance counties in central Nebraska.

The historic floods, which have been estimated to have caused $1.3 billion in damage across the state, drawing a federal disaster declaration, also claimed Nebraska 22 to the west toward Fullerton.

Portions of U.S. 30 between Grand Island and Columbus were also closed, leaving the only way between Genoa and Silver Creek a circuitous route south to Osceola, east to Shelby, north through Columbus and then finally back west.

“There is no way, without going at least an hour out of the way, of getting from one side to the other,” said Robb, who teaches math at the high school. “Every major route has a bridge out or a road closed.”

The flood split Twin River Public Schools in two.

While it could take months for the floodwaters to recede and for crews to make the repairs to Nebraska 39, Twin River Superintendent John Weidner Sr. said the school can’t wait that long.

After huddling with his administrative team last week, Weidner hatched a plan.

Students and staff living north of the Loup would go to the school in Genoa, while those on the south side of the deluge, no matter their grade, would report to Silver Creek.

Teachers would carve out space where they could, inside the gym — or in Robb’s case, the trophy room just outside the gym — and Twin River would deploy as many Chromebook computers and other technology as it could get its hands on to connect the sites.

Twin River would become a virtual school of sorts, Weidner said. Students would interact with their teacher like they did before, only now that teacher might be separated by millions of gallons of water.

“We had to do something to get the school up and running again,” Weidner said. “We thought we could pull this off.”

On a normal day, the Genoa school has all grade levels in session, with students in grades 3-6 in the Silver Creek area attending classes there.

Staff got a crash course in educational technology Monday and prepared for the return of students Wednesday, but one problem remained.

Along with slicing Nebraska 39, the icy floodwaters also knocked out the fiber-optic line connecting the district’s schools that ran along the bottom of the overflow bridge.

Eagle Communications, the Kansas company that manages the system, including cable television service, was notified of the outage at about 6 a.m. on March 14, according to Travis Kohlrus, the company’s vice president of broadband.

Once the floodwaters receded some over the weekend, technicians Tony Carroll and Kelly Bandt, both of Central City, convinced a sheriff’s deputy to let them wade into no-man’s land Monday in search of the cut lines.

The pair walked two miles up the remains of Nebraska 39, getting as close as they could to where the line was split. They located where the cable was buried on either side of the river, an hour-long drive between the two sites, and prepared to splice in a new section.

That was the easy part. The tough part — how to get a new fiber-optic cable across the river — remained.

“We totally started thinking outside the box on how we could do this,” Carroll said.

Bandt considered going by air, deploying the drone he used to survey the damage to hoist a small line to the other side, where it could be used to pull a cable across the river.

But Carroll opted for a water mission, launching the jon boat he uses to fish in the small ponds normally dotting central Nebraska to drag a new line between banks.

Carroll put the aluminum boat propelled by an electric motor in on the north bank and made several attempts to cross, coming up short each time as the drag produced by the fiber-optic cable and the strength of the current kept pushing him downstream.

Switching tactics, Carroll launched on the south bank, this time dragging his fishing pole with a line behind him to keep the water from pushing him downstream. But ultimately the fishing line could not hold up under the tension of pulling a heavier line.

So, Carroll tried once more, this time dragging a spool of “mule tape” behind, lightweight enough that it wouldn’t stall out his boat, and flat enough that it didn’t produce too much drag.

It worked, or as Carroll put it: “We won.”

The crew, including David Morono of Schuyler, tied the mule tape to the cable and, using a four-wheeler on loan from a friend on the other side, pulled 400 feet of conduit back across the river.

The internet, carried by a fiber-optic line dangling over the Loup River, was restored to Silver Creek at 12:34 p.m. Wednesday.

“I just jumped up and down when I heard,” Bandt said. “We take a lot of pride in our work and we take care of our own here in Nebraska.”

Robb said while Nebraska 39 remains closed, the internet connection between Genoa and Silver Creek will help Twin River salvage the remaining few weeks of the 2018-19 school year.

Students have been flexible and are quickly adapting to the new reality, he said, and teachers have hit the ground running in adopting new technology and trying to navigate stressful moments at school and home.

“We’re all in a situation we don’t want to be in right now,” he said, “but things are going to work really well, I think.”