‘Angels of the sky’ offer flights into flooded Nebraska city

‘Angels of the sky’ offer flights into flooded Nebraska city
Pilot Herb Johansen of Bennington, Neb., unloads supplies he volunteered to fly into the Fremont, Neb., airport, Monday, March 18, 2019. Walled off by massive flooding, Fremont is getting a big lift from private pilots who are offering free flights to shuttle stranded residents to and from their hometown. Authorities say flooding from the Platte River and other waterways is so bad that just one highway lane into Fremont remains uncovered, and access to that road is severely restricted. Airport officials estimate that more than 500 people have caught flights on small aircraft flown by volunteers. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

Author: Grant Schulte, Associated Press

Published: March 18, 2019

A Nebraska city walled off by massive flooding is getting a big lift from private pilots who are offering free flights to shuttle stranded residents to and from their hometown.

Flooding from the Platte River and other waterways is so bad that just one highway lane into Fremont remains uncovered, authorities said Monday. Emergency responders have restricted access for safety reasons, leaving residents in the city of 26,000 stuck on an island in the middle of Nebraska farm country, about 40 miles northwest of Omaha. The flooding in Fremont comes as communities in several Midwestern states grapple with swollen rivers and breached or overtopped levees following heavy rain and snowmelt.

After a weekend with no road access to the outside world, officials in Fremont said they still don't know when any will reopen. The flights were a godsend for Sue Ankersen, 56, who lives in the city but wasn't able to return home after baby-sitting her granddaughter in Omaha on Friday. Ankersen said she had never flown in a small plane before, but heard about the flights from her daughter and worked up the courage to go because she was homesick and wanted to volunteer to help others.

"I call them angels of the sky," she said. "I'm just so thankful for these guys doing this."

The makeshift shuttle flights have led to a surge in air traffic at the Fremont Municipal Airport and its two runways. Pilots have flown in from at least five nearby airports in Nebraska as well as others in western Iowa and Kansas, said Jim Kjeldgaard, the airport's operator.

Kjeldgaard estimated that at least 30 airplanes have flown more than 500 people since Friday, and the airport was still bustling on Monday morning.

"We're going full steam today," Kjeldgaard said. "It's been a massive undertaking."

He said pilots have taken passengers out of town to get to medical appointments, funerals and relatives who live elsewhere. They've also hauled water, food, toilet paper and other supplies. One pilot joked to Kjeldgaard that the airport was busier than Omaha's Eppley Airfield, the state's largest airport.

Most of the pilots heard of the effort by word of mouth and saw it as a chance to use their skills for a good purpose, said George Richmond, a flight instructor and former airline pilot. Richmond said he flew girls and their grandmother from Fremont to Lincoln on Sunday to unite them with family members.

"It's a grassroots operation," he said between flights in his Piper Comanche. "Pilots are doing it because it's something we can do."

Herb Johansen, a pilot from Bennington, removed the back two seats from his Piper Saratoga so he could haul water, diapers, clothing and food into town along with passengers — mostly college students from Midland University. He said the airplane traffic around Fremont is "hectic, maybe even semi-dangerous" because so many pilots are landing and taking off from the small airport.

Fremont City Administrator Brian Newton said it's too early to say when the roads will reopen. Floodwaters from the Platte and Elkhorn rivers have forced the closure of U.S. Highways 77 and 275 on both the north and south sides of Fremont, and U.S. Highway 30 on the east and west sides of the city. Some Fremont police officers who live on the outskirts had to catch flights from the volunteer pilots so they could report to work, Newton said.

Just one lane of U.S. Highway 30 west of town wasn't totally covered with water, and law enforcement limited traffic on the road to ensure a route for gas, food, water and other essentials.

Newton said officials are concerned that flooding may have undermined the integrity of the main bridge on U.S. Highway 77 that crosses the Platte River just south of Fremont.

U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, who lives in Fremont, said he was working with the Trump administration in hopes of getting federal aid to Nebraska as quickly as possible. Sasse said he was concerned about the flood's long-term impact and the problems that road damage could cause for farmers trying to get their products to market.

Sasse said his parents ended up stranded in Omaha during the flood and were offered a flight into town from a volunteer pilot. He said pilots have also shuttled in supplies, while on-the-ground volunteers filled sandbags to try to prevent the flood from spreading.

"I'm not surprised at all," the senator said. "This is just the way Nebraskans are."

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