NIOBRARA — One year later, Laura Sucha counts her blessings every day.
Sucha owns and operates the Country Café on the south edge of Niobrara. Last spring, on March 14, a wall of water and ice chunks cruised down the Niobrara River when the Spencer Dam failed. A trail of destruction cascaded down the river, leaving farmers and a couple of Niobrara businesses trying to come up for air.
A 7 a.m. phone call notified three Niobrara business owners they would be wiped out when a wall of water 11 feet high crashed through the bottom on the south edge of Niobrara.
“Never could we have imagined what that meant,” Sucha said.
Sucha and her family were stuck at their family home when the Verdigris Creek surrounded the town of Verdigre with water. No one could get in or out. Although family and friends sent updates on the situation in Niobrara, it was the next day before Sucha could make the trek to her café. Heavy equipment was needed to clear the ice from the road, and Sucha and her family even climbed ice chunks to get to her business — or what was left of it.
“It was overwhelming,” Sucha said as she looks back on last spring.
But by June 7, Sucha was up and running, thanks to more donations and volunteers than she could count.
“We are very blessed; volunteers and donations came from near and far,” Sucha said.
Crews came from all over to help with the construction of the Country Café, staying for days at a time. The roof was intact and more than 75% of the walls remained standing even though ice chunks as big as a semi-tractor tried to push their way through the dining room. Most of the kitchen equipment and dining room tables and chairs were destroyed. The business had to start from the ground up.
Today, Sucha is appreciative of everyone who made it possible to bring her café back into operation, making it even better than before.
“The customers are so glad we are open and they show it,” Sucha said. And so is she.
“The people here in Niobrara are very resilient,” Jody Stark said. “They do what they need to do to keep things going.”
Stark, the mayor of Niobrara and a local businessman, looked around the community and sees a strong will to succeed. Niobrara is a popular spot for spring and fall hunting opportunities, as well as water recreation. Even though the loss of a boat dock and the flood damage to the bridge heading west to the Niobrara State Recreation Area affected the spring and summer water activities, last fall not much stopped hunters from returning and enjoying their favorite spots.
Other businesses affected in the bottom area included Vic’s Service and a grain elevator.
Vic’s Service moved up Highway 12 and purchased a business that fit its needs. An older owner of a gas station and convenience store was ready to retire, and the two businesses came to terms.
The grain elevator is up and running, and a former state road yard became a parking lot for the construction workers rebuilding the bridge across the Niobrara River. The roads department had moved to a new yard east of Niobrara a few years ago, and the few buildings that remained in the old yard were cleaned out by flood waters.
A cement plant did not reopen for business. Another large shed owned by the Ponca Tribe was unoccupied at the time and is still standing with moderate damage, but no plans have been made for it. The Nielson Hay Co. moved it business outside of town to a different property it owned.
Now it is business as usual.
“I pray every day, we never have to go through that again,” Sucha said. “But I know now I truly belong here.”
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Coming Wednesday: A look at how Osmond and Verdigre have rebounded from last year’s flooding.