Peru flooding, 3.17

Peru State College students and community members look out at the floodwaters March 17 in Peru.

It all started with a Facebook post March 14.

"I’m not sure if people realize how bad it is right now for Nebraska. WHOLE towns are under water, weather reporters said evacuations have been ordered for 21 towns and communities of more than 60,000 people. Most of which also got hit by the blizzard with no place to go," Alex Stepanek wrote then.

Friday, he said he didn't think his friends in Lincoln and Omaha realized how bad it was.

So, in the post that would be shared 430,000 times, the 27-year-old Lincoln man who grew up on a farm in St. Paul described how people had to leave behind pets and livestock during calving season.

"People are either trapped in their houses or can’t access them since two days ago. This will be billions of dollars in damages and losses across Nebraska, please pray for those suffering," Stepanek wrote.

His friends shared the post. Friends of friends shared it. Their friends shared it. Soon he had tons of messages asking how to help.

Stepanek said he started out directing people to the Red Cross or Salvation Army. But people didn't seem satisfied, he said.

So he and his friend, Melissa Dush of Loup City, decided to create their own fundraiser on Facebook, "Nebraska Storm and Flood Relief," promising to make sure the money would get directly to the areas affected, Stepanek said.

He was expecting to raise maybe $5,000. A week later, they'd raised nearly $230,000.

"It just really blew up big-time," Stepanek said.

With the grassroots movement, Stepanek was part of what appears to be a growing phenomenon of people turning to private fundraisers spread through social media.

Dozens of GoFundMe pages popped up aiming to raise money for things such as animal rescue relief efforts, the Boyd County Rural Water District, a Dannebrog couple left homeless.

As of Tuesday, Lincoln photographer Wyn Wiley had raised nearly $70,000 by asking Instagram followers to send him donations through PayPal and Venmo, a mobile payment service commonly used to split a cab fare or dinner bill among friends.

Wiley stayed quiet until Friday afternoon, on a trip in the mountains and out of cell coverage, while controversy swirled on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook questioning the lack of transparency about where the money would go.

Earlier in the week, Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson said his office was reaching out to contact people doing private fundraising to tell them "what responsibilities we have as far as charitable giving oversight, and that there's standards and expectations that we would have."

"We've had a few of those that have come up and we're sending notification out to them,” he said.

Suzanne Gage, the AG office's communications director, said she didn't have a specific number of calls, but she could say that they've seen an uptick.

"We take everything seriously that comes our way," she said.

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The Attorney General's office put out a checklist to promote giving wisely and distinguishing between legitimate charities and scams and added a page on the topic on its website at protectthegoodlife.nebraska.gov/protect-yourself-response-flooding.

Officials recommend caution when donating to fundraising efforts initiated on social media that aren't tied to an organization or charity and getting all the details before giving money.

Stepanek said when his fundraiser reached somewhere around $80,000, he started seeing more people publicly asking if it was legitimate. People who know him vouched for him online.

The Nebraska Farm Bureau reached out, saying it had gotten more than 100 calls asking if his fundraiser was a scam; the Attorney General's office called, too, to confirm he was in Nebraska and donating the money.

Stepanek said he realized quickly that people had put a lot of faith in him and he didn't want them to worry.

He said he didn't expect to raise as much as he has. "I'm doing my best to catch up."

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Stepanek talked to an accountant about establishing an account under her nonprofit, Loup City Entrepreneur's Club, through Citizens Bank & Trust. The accountant, Jennifer Smydra, agreed to provide oversight and accounting free of charge.

Friday, Stepanek posted an update letting people know that $75,000 of the money will go immediately to the Nebraska Farm Bureau.

"The big thing for me was making sure the farmers and ranchers would get help," Stepanek said.

He and Dush decided to target about nine or 10 counties, based on private damage estimates, and to focus on areas that likely won't get federal disaster relief.

They also are looking into paying funeral costs for the three people who have died in the flooding, James Wilke of Columbus, Betty Hamernik of Columbus and Aleido Rojas Galan of Norfolk.

In a Friday afternoon post to Instagram, Wiley said he would donate $18,000 each of the next four weeks to organizations committed to helping those hit hardest by the flooding. The first donation will go to the Santee Nation Disbursement Fund, he said.

Stepanek said he knew from the get-go that he didn't want to touch the money. He didn't want the appearance of impropriety.

Stepanek, who works as a rehab technician at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital in Omaha, said he gets to see miracles happen all the time there. Driving back and forth from Lincoln every day, he saw the Platte River rising and was inspired to do something.

Lately, he said, he's been taking U.S. 6 and taking it all in.

Of the 5,400 people who have donated to his fundraiser online, Stepanek said he knows 200 at the most. A lot of donors grew up in Nebraska and live somewhere else now, like a man from Columbus who now lives in New York and gave $1,000. A friend who was a foreign-exchange student at his high school shared the post in France, which led to French donations.

Nowadays, we're all so divided, Stepanek said. But the tragedy pulled people together.

"It restored my faith in humanity a little bit," he said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7237 or lpilger@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSpilger.


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