Nov. 4, 2019
By Matt Smith and Kyle Jones, Walmart Corporate Affairs
On Thursday, March 14, 2019, in northern Nebraska, Spencer Dam broke, creating a flood that would devastate communities in Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri and Kansas.
The week before the flood, a historic winter storm deposited large amounts of snow and ice. Then, rising temperatures and more rainfall hastened a thaw that hurtled an enormous volume of water at the dam. What followed was a massive flow of frigid water and truck-sized chunks of ice into the Missouri River and its tributaries.
Fremont, Nebraska, is a long way from Spencer Dam – a three-hour drive south, in fact. So, when rumors of a 5-foot wall of water reached residents on Friday, March 15, it seemed like fantasy.
Veronica Blackmon lives in North Bend, about 15 miles west of Fremont on the Platte River, and she’s worked at the Walmart supercenter in Fremont for 25 years. Veronica knew that if the predicted flood did happen, she may not be able to get into work, but she and her husband had no intentions of leaving their house.
As the water started to rise around Veronica’s house on Friday, she and her family were forced to look for higher ground, and face just how dangerous flood waters could be.
“I had to step down on the ground to get in the car, and the water was to my knees. It was freezing-cold, like ‘took-your-breath-away’ freezing cold,” she recalled.
As residents were evacuated from Fremont and surrounding areas, Carrie Hungerford, the manager of the Fremont supercenter, left her store thinking she’d return the next day. Carrie lives in Omaha, a short drive away.
“I left Friday not thinking I was going to spend four days not getting back to the store,” she said.
Fremont is a town of about 26,000 that’s sandwiched between the Elkhorn and Platte rivers. On a normal day, the town is surrounded on three sides by these rivers. That’s one of the reasons this area makes such fertile farmland. But, when flood waters encroached, the town’s proximity to the rivers ensured all roads were completely blocked.
As those remaining in Fremont began to realize they were isolated from the rest of the world, the supercenter’s co-manager Murat Agar and assistant manager Paul Teff were determined to keep store 776 open to serve the residents of Fremont.
In fact, the two of them stayed in the store the entire weekend to make sure it stayed open.
“Most of our managers live in Omaha, so I knew we had to step up,” Murat said. “I knew that we had to be there for them and provide whatever they needed.”
They were prepared for just about anything, even if all they could provide was a safe, dry place to sleep. Murat and Paul set up air mattresses in the back room for anyone, customers or associates, to sleep on if they couldn’t make it to their homes. No one had to use the makeshift shelter, they said, but they were prepared nonetheless.
“We worked as a team to get through this surreal situation,” Murat said.
As the weekend went on, the store started to run out of products, so the managers frequently convened via phone. Carrie toured the store with Murat and Paul using FaceTime, so she could give advice and see what they needed to order.
Sunday afternoon, rumors began to surface that a driving route from Omaha to Fremont may be open, so Carrie and her market team members, who also live in Omaha, decided to make the attempt the following morning.
“I don’t think I slept all night,” she said.
The journey normally takes around 25 minutes, but that Monday, it took two and a half hours. Carrie opened Google maps to navigate, but there were so many roads under water, she couldn’t use any of the suggested routes. The only way to find a passable path was to look at the bird’s-eye view. That finally helped, but the devastation they saw on the way was heartbreaking.
“When I passed through North Bend, there wasn’t a person on the street. You could see the water levels on the houses, and to know what these people went through … I had tears running down my face,” she remembered.
When Carrie and team arrived in Fremont, they were surprised at the state of affairs. Many everyday items were in short supply. The city of Fremont set up a donation center, and on Monday, even they were fully depleted with only a couple cases of water and little else. Carrie recalls that the center looked completely empty.
Carrie and the team were focused on getting the community back on their feet. Carrie worked with associates at the Home Office to arrange for donations from the Walmart Foundation to the United Way. Alongside this help, the store team donated truckloads of water, diapers, clothes and other basic necessities. The number one thing people wanted was a pillow.
Meanwhile, at the Walmart Home Office, teams worked feverishly in the company’s Emergency Operations Center to get Fremont what it needed. In fact, Walmart drivers delivered 17 full trucks of supplies to store 776 in just over 24 hours. To give a little perspective, under normal circumstances at a Walmart store, two trucks arriving in one night is considered to be fairly demanding.
So, the team went to work. 50 additional Walmart associates from Fremont and Omaha came to town to help. Carrie and her team worked heroically to help get people in the community back on their feet, donating basic necessities such as clothes and water. These efforts in the first week after the flood were a huge help to those who lost so much.
Because of their efforts, the Walmart team in Fremont was recognized with one of Walmart’s most prestigious accolades, the Sam M. Walton Entrepreneur of the Year award. The award, given at Walmart’s annual shareholders celebration, is normally given to an individual who has made a significant impact within the business. This year, the associates of store 776 earned it for their continued efforts to help their own disaster-burdened community.
For the associates in Fremont, the award was definitely an unexpected honor, but the damage created by the flood is still an ongoing part of life. While the flood happened seven months ago, cleanup efforts continue.
“The news isn’t reporting on it now,” Veronica said, “but we’ll be dealing with the effects of this flood for years and years.”
Carrie is proud of her team for how they united in duress. As she looks to the future, she reflects on the impact the experience has made on her personally.
“Water is so powerful now to me,” she said.
Editor’s Note: This spring, Walmart announced $1 million in flood and disaster relief in the Midwest and South.