Curled up on the couch before another day at kindergarten, the images of country bridges wiped out and Nebraska cattle herds isolated on islands was unsettling, even upsetting, for 6-year-old Kai Baldwin.

"He started crying — not that it's totally out of character for him — but I had never seen him get emotional over something on the news," said Baldwin's mother, Kristin Forbis, in a telephone interview from their home in Vernal, Utah.

Nearly 800 miles away from ground zero of a mid-March storm that dropped torrential rains on frozen farm ground, Baldwin told his mother they had to do something.

To Kai, the rampant rivers and newly formed lakes meant people in Nebraska couldn't get home, while their potentially starving animals were stranded.

"My first thought was 'I don't know what we can do,'" Forbis said. "I also knew that I didn't want to rob him of an experience where he was feeling moved to help."

Together, they created a poster explaining the situation a few states over and decided to ask their family, friends and neighbors around the northeastern Utah community of roughly 10,000 to empty the change from their pockets to put toward a new bridge for Nebraska.

Kai set a goal of $60. He quickly collected $100, which "left him feeling like a king," Forbis said. Then he hit $200, and the donations kept coming.

On March 28, Kai and his mom turned the jars of coins and loose dollar bills into a cashier's check for $285.28, and put it into a card with his intentions the money be used to help those in need. They addressed it to the Nebraska Farm Bureau, which Forbis found was accepting donations to help flood victims.

"He felt that would be enough to really help with a bridge," Forbis said.

2,000 miles away

As Kai was in Utah collecting donations for a bridge, Jesse Wise in Virginia was watching hay farmers such as himself prepare to haul bales to ranchers in Nebraska.

"I would have liked to help, but didn't have any to part with," he said in a phone interview Tuesday.

But he did have something recently offloaded in his family-run scrapyard in Culpeper, a town not unlike several Nebraska communities hurting from the natural disaster.

He had a temporary steel bridge, measuring 45 feet long and up to 20 feet wide, sitting in four sections at Wise Services & Recycling.

The temporary bridge, which needed a fresh coat of paint but was in good shape, had been used by the Virginia Department of Transportation during construction projects until it was replaced and sold to Wise "with no strings attached" and plenty of life left.

"Part of recycling is finding a new use for something," Wise said. "I figured some farmer or someone could use it in Nebraska, because that's who I would have sold it to here."

Wise called around. One Nebraska co-op reacted with skepticism when offered a bridge from a man with a thick Virginia accent, he said.

Finally, the Virginia Farm Bureau connected Wise with the Nebraska Farm Bureau Foundation. Wise said his frequent collaborator, Jason Neff, who owns and operates a crane, agreed to donate the time to put the bridge on a truck bound for Nebraska.

Pete Read of Read Transportation, a local trucking outfit, shouldered most of the cost of conveying the bridge westward.

The offer to donate a bridge — one estimated at $25,000 — was made just days after Kai's cashier's check for $285.28 arrived in the mail, a coincidence, to be sure. But after a streak of bad luck across Nebraska, the serendipity was welcome.

Meet in the middle

Once Wise got connected with the Nebraska Farm Bureau and arrangements to bring his bridge to the Cornhusker State were solidified, Craig Bartels took a phone call with an extraordinary offer.

A local Farm Bureau agent asked the Cedar County commissioner if he'd be willing to take the bridge.

"It took me about 10 seconds to say we'll find a place for it," Bartels said.

Cedar County — a large swath of land in the northeast corner of the state that butts up against the South Dakota border — wasn't hit as hard as other counties on March 13, when a wall of water and car-sized blocks of ice crashed through dams and levees, villages and farms, but there was still plenty of damage done.

More than 1,100 miles of county roads, the majority of which are gravel or minimum-maintenance dirt roads, were chewed away by floodwaters running across frozen fields like concrete, and 32 bridges were damaged, some heavily.

"I used to work for a guy who is 83, he was a county commissioner, too, and he told me he's seen water run across the roads, but he's never seen it like that," Bartels said.

It will likely take years — barring any further natural disasters — for Cedar County to bring its roads back to normal. The county is waiting for funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency, Bartels said, and anticipates borrowing some money to help fund repairs.

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But a new bridge, ready to install? Cedar County will take what it can get.

"When you have mile after mile needing repairs, you've got to start somewhere," Bartels said.

The bridge was delivered Tuesday in Coleridge, where the county road department maintains an office. Engineers will assess the best way to widen the bridge before it can be installed, or even if the structure could be split into two separate bridges.

Bartels said the three-member county board will deliberate where it can best use the bridge, or if neighboring counties Knox or Pierce — which were hit  harder by the storm — could be better served by it.

"At least it's here where it can be utilized," he said.

People helping people

No one who worked to bring what the Nebraska Farm Bureau is calling "Kai's Bridge" to the state has ever met.

The connection was the heart-rending images on TV and online and a desire to do something to help.

Kai, who forged overwhelming emotion into action, has been pretty matter-of-fact about the news that a bridge was being delivered, his mother said. "If someone needed a bridge, they were going to get it."

His family has been touched by the sentiment, she added.

Wise, who also farms and ranches in addition to running his scrapyard, has often been on the receiving end of an outstretched hand. Neighbors will show up to help cut hay late at night, he said, never needing to be asked and never expecting anything in return.

It's that spirit he wanted to show those who need it.

"People helping people," he said. "That's just the way it should be."

Things come together when people do what they are capable of to help others, Forbis added, no matter if it's $285.28 in loose change or a $25,000 bridge.

"There's something a little magical about it," she said. "It's a good example for all of us to have a heart that cares about other people and do what we can."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS.


Higher education reporter

Chris Dunker covers higher education, state government and the intersection of both.

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