Invested where they live

Everyday Stewardship |

Matt and Elizabeth Troyer-Miller contribute to their Nebraska community's well-being

Floodwaters in Wood River, Nebraska

This is how an area of Wood River, Nebraska, looked in March 2019, when floodwaters covered the landscape.

 

Streets in Wood River, Nebraska, became rivers themselves in March 2019.

For Matt and Elizabeth Troyer-Miller and other Wood River residents, things went from bad to worse quickly.

To help with a community sandbagging effort, Elizabeth walked through water to cross the street in front of their house, but on her return trip, the water was much higher. She made it across the second time only because a neighbor with a loader came to her aid.

It wasn’t just the water’s depth that made it dangerous to cross the street on foot. “The water was moving pretty fast” at that point, Elizabeth said.

Floodwaters inundated the city of 1,325 residents between Grand Island and Kearney when storms brought several inches of rain, which fell onto a foot of snow cover.

Adding to the problem, the ground was frozen to a depth of 25 inches because of frigid conditions before the rain came.

“It had been bitterly cold,” Matt recalls. “The culverts were frozen. There was nowhere for the water to go” when the storms arrived.

Temperatures that week had gone from the 30s to above 60 degrees, then back to the 30s. Heavy rain was followed by blowing snow, and the new snow then turned to slush and melted.

Flooding in Nebraska was widespread – Wood River was one of many areas with extensive damage. Government officials estimated losses in the state at $1 to $1.5 billion.

Matt and Elizabeth Troyer-Miller with their children

Matt and Elizabeth Troyer-Miller and their children.

Matt is pastor of Wood River Mennonite Church, and an EMT and chaplain for the Wood River Volunteer Fire Department.

Elizabeth works part time for Heartland Disaster Recovery Group, has been heavily involved in Stick Creek Kids child development center, and offers mediation services. Stick Creek Kids, which opened in May 2021, serves more than 60 children.

The Troyer-Millers have three children – Fritz, 9; Loretta, 6; and Ezra, 4.

Preparations for what was coming

Local officials knew the rain and snow melt posed a potential threat, but no one could know how quickly the water might rise or how deep it might get.

An email from the fire department on Thursday night, March 14, advised Matt and other volunteers to monitor the situation because of the heavy rain on Wednesday and rain/snow on Thursday.

Matt was one of several people who helped on Friday to evacuate a nursing home and condos where older residents lived.

“It was a tense time,” he said. “It was about 40 degrees and the water was cold.”

Matt and other volunteers took the residents to the high school, which had become an emergency shelter.

Matt and Elizabeth Troyer-Miller with their children

Matt and Elizabeth Troyer-Miller and their kids enjoy a park in Wood River.

“We were kind of worried for those few hours they were at the high school because some needed specialized care,” Matt said. But after a brief time at the school, the nursing home residents were transferred to other nearby health facilities.

More than 75% of the houses in Wood River were damaged, including the Troyer-Miller home, where about 3 inches of water in the basement ruined toys, furniture, carpet, and an air conditioning unit.

Matt’s mother and stepfather came from Shickley – about 70 miles away – to take Fritz, Loretta and Ezra to their home for several days while much of Wood River was underwater.

Many hands involved in city’s recovery

At least a dozen houses in Wood River needed new foundations. Water collected in the basements of the church buildings in town.

Wood River Mennonite Church – located 5 miles northwest of the city, in an area with relatively little water damage – opened their doors to host a joint worship service that included pastors and members of other local congregations.

As the main contact person for Heartland Disaster Recovery Group, Elizabeth helped find sources of money and workers to help Wood River residents restore their foundations and rebuild their homes.

“We had a system in place for people wanting to help and people needing help,” Elizabeth said. “I was hired to coordinate efforts among the various agencies. Matt spent two weeks doing immediate disaster response.”

Organizations sending aid workers to the scene included Mennonite Disaster Service and the Red Cross.

Filling bags with sand

Volunteers in Wood River fill bags with sand in 2019.

Matt helped the visiting volunteers and the fire department coordinate their work, so services and supplies were delivered efficiently to those who needed them.

Matt conducted welfare checks – visiting homes to see if residents were OK and to find out if they needed help. Some needed an empathetic ear more than material goods.

“There were all sorts of issues to deal with,” Matt said, from keeping bored children at the evacuation site occupied with games and toys to rounding up pillows and blankets.

Neighbors pitched in to help each other, too. Within a week, floodwaters receded and a visitor to Wood River might not have noticed any damage, Matt said.

A reporter for the Grand Island Independent wrote: “There was never a sense of defeat among the residents of Wood River, even when things appeared the darkest. There was a strong sense of resilience – being able to take what nature had to give and bounce back and go another round the next day.”

As Elizabeth said, “This community shows up for each other.”

Concern for your community

Caring about the place where you live feels natural for Matt and Elizabeth.

Hesston (Kansas) College talked with Matt for an alumnus profile in which he said Jeremiah 29:7 is one of the most impactful Bible verses in his life. The verse is about seeking the peace and prosperity of the city to which God has guided us.

Elizabeth and Matt were living in Matt’s hometown of Shickley when, in 2010, a conference minister asked Matt to fill the pulpit at Wood River Mennonite Church.

Floodwaters in Wood River, Nebraska

Flooding in Wood River in 2019.

Matt had considered the ministry, and this was a chance to preach every week and get to know people in a congregation.

After Matt served at Wood River Mennonite for six months, an interim pastor was named, but the church called Matt to serve as pastor in 2012. He was licensed in 2012 and ordained in 2015.

Elizabeth isn’t a Nebraska native and, admittedly, living in rural Nebraska wasn’t her dream. “But I also believe you seek God’s shalom and invest in the community where you live. So that is what I have done,” she said.

Matt and Elizabeth purchased a building downtown a few years ago. The building features space on the ground floor for retail use, along with apartments on the second floor. The couple has since remodeled the apartments and replaced the roof and heating and cooling units. Now, they’re working on upgrading the building’s electrical system, with aesthetic improvements to the storefront and façade to follow.

Plans for the first floor are not cast in stone, but they’d like to see it become a community gathering space in some way.

Jim Miller

Author

Jim Miller
Writer/editor

Become a stewardship advocate

Matt and Elizabeth Troyer-Miller are connected to Everence® in a number of ways. One is that Elizabeth serves as the Everence Stewardship Advocate for Wood River Mennonite Church.

Stewardship advocates help their fellow church attenders integrate faith with financial decisions, support people in need through the Everence Sharing Fund, and encourage the congregation toward greater understanding and practice of biblical stewardship.

Find out more