'Good deeds' help town recover

BY JEN JACKSON | Oconto, NE | December 18, 2000

Tornado recovery in this town is made of good deeds and small gestures. An out-of-season twister that hit Halloween night damaged or destroyed nearly every home in Oconto, population 147.

The only human injury was a broken toe. Because the tornado didn't result in loss of life, the disaster was initially overlooked. Vern Steinman, coordinator of the Aid Association for Lutherans said, "Oconto is kind of left out of the scheme of things. Like in my hometown of Norfolk, we have so much around us to help. First thing we found out was that there was no activity taking place to help."

Sixty-one homes were damaged or destroyed Halloween night, that is, 90 percent of the town. Area residents promptly began cleaning up. Students from local schools were released from classes to help clear out debris. College kids came home to help their parents and neighbors pick up the pieces.

And outside help also came from a grassroots organization based in Norfolk, NE. The Orphan Grain Train and its volunteers have donated time, supplies, and household furnishings to help rebuild.

A horse trailer full of furniture and appliances pulled into town a month after the Oconto tornado touched down. It was followed by a semi-truck bed full of fence building materials to help mend what little is left of the broken village.

Steinman said, "We get a lot of hugs and a lot of letters thanking us. This is a humanitarian mission. It's not very often that you get to give fence posts and wire." The Orphan Grain Train is partially sponsored by the Aid Association for Lutherans.

Kent Wilke of the Orphan Grain Train disaster response division said, "We're bringing appliances, furniture, barbed wire, posts. It's amazing what comes in, and when we respond, the goods actually get into the hands of the people who need it."

Oconto Mayor Gary Bomberger is amazed at the outpouring. "It's hard to put into words. How do you say thank you for so much. We're a little, dinky town in the middle of nowhere. Most people have never heard of us. We have a tornado and here comes help from all over."

The Orphan Grain Train began its response efforts after Nebraska crops were devastated in 1992 and has been a disaster relief force ever since. Its relief efforts have grown and now the volunteers who staff the nondenominational Christian response group are ready to respond to any disaster in the state.

Kent Wilke, Orphan Grain Train volunteer said, "The neat thing about it is that it's grass roots. It's all volunteer people, it's private. We're not really associated with any corporations."

Many Oconto residents have been staying with family members or neighbors since the Halloween devastation. They had hoped to be started with rebuilding by now. But early snowfall halted any building projects. Residents may now have to wait for the spring thaw to begin work on homes and buildings.

But they're still looking ahead with hope. Resident Gary Bomberger said, "I'm very proud to be from Nebraska and I'm proud of the response to others in need. Especially this time of year."

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