Room 137, Bureau of Mines Building
Phone: (307) 766-2929
May 30, 2014 — As two large University of Wyoming buses and four Suburbans crammed with nearly 80 university employees, student workers and student-athletes rolled down Saratoga’s main street, a couple of customers at a corner convenience store stepped out the front door, pointed at the caravan and waved.
Even Mayor John Zieger came out to personally greet the UW contingent, thanking the group personally for helping his flood-stricken community. Several hard-working National Guardsmen welcomed the fresh bodies who came into the small Carbon County community Friday morning to help in any way they could.
One citizen commented, “The whole community appreciates you being here.”
This week, the North Platte River has peaked to record levels, threatening severe flooding in the community. But, with a week’s worth of volunteer work, most of the tide of water has been held back along the river’s banks, saving the picturesque community from what could have been potential disaster. The town’s business district was dry, but some homes closer to the river experienced flooded front yards.
Volunteers the past week have feverishly filled sandbags, and just this week, Gov. Matt Mead ordered the deployment of three National Guard teams to help with the efforts; in all, nearly 150 reservists were boots on the ground leading the charge along with other volunteers.
That’s when the UW volunteers came into the area to put in a full day’s work.
“We have had a lot of good people working a lot of long hours, and we can’t thank you enough for volunteering,” Lt. Col. Rob Miknis told the UW volunteers once they got off the bus for a briefing session.
After the briefing, it was time to roll up the sleeves and get to the task at hand. The UW volunteers were divided into three groups: one filled sandbags; another rode a bus around the community to see the work that was done to help prevent loss of property; and another helped build a berm to hold back water from reaching homes on the northwest end of town.
The two biggest groups representing UW were Physical Plant employees and about 50 student-athletes from the football team. One of them later in the morning commented that throwing sandbags was easier than their daily workouts.
For one player, filling sandbags was familiar. Redshirt sophomore Tanner Simpson of Lander, a secondary science education major -- with a minor in psychology -- says volunteering for flood relief duty was reminiscent of what he went through the summer before his senior year at Lander Valley High School. The Popo Agie River spilled its banks and caused flooding in Simpson’s hometown.
“I was out there with the other community people helping in any way I could. It was good to get out there and throw some bags and to help those people whose houses were close to the river,” he says.
He adds that it was no problem for him and his teammates to jump at the opportunity to volunteer in Saratoga.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to get out into the community and support our state. It shows that our team really cares about our state,” Simpson says. “This also gives us an opportunity to interact with the community.”
The community aspect is what led UW officials to offer assistance. Four years ago, UW sent a contingent to help when the Laramie River flooded. Since then, the university has been readily available, says Mark Collins, UW vice president of operations.
UW officials learned this week that the real critical need for emergency help was in Saratoga. Collins says UW officials contacted state authorities and indicated that “We were readily available and we could provide between 60-70 people to help with sandbagging or any other emergency operations” in the Carbon County community.
Wyoming Homeland Security Director Guy Cameron contacted Collins and accepted UW’s offer.
“I think we’re really making a big difference here in Saratoga today,” Collins said while tossing filled sandbags onto a pallet for loading.
One UW group later boarded a transport bus that took it to the edge of town, where water was spilling over the banks and flowing close to property. The only thing separating the river from houses was a large, open pasture.
As four horses munched on grass nearby, oblivious to pools of water surrounding them, the UW contingent formed a long line to help construct a berm about 100 yards from the river.
About 30 UW employees and football players stacked sandbags in a long line that snaked its way from one end of the pasture to the other side, nearly 200 yards. Once that chore was done, the group headed back into town for lunch.
Zach Duval, who has been an assistant coach under head Coach Craig Bohl since January, says it was “pretty easy” for him and three other assistant coaches and team members to volunteer their services.
“We’re actually in the middle of summer conditioning, and we talked to the guys and made it ‘optional-mandatory,’ and here we are,” he says. “We have a very dedicated group of guys who are committed to the community part of their experience because the state gives us so much support. And it’s pretty easy for us to give back.”
Dani Hitt, a student employee in the Physical Plant accounting office, was glad to get out of the office for one day to assist her co-workers on the front line in Saratoga. She hadn’t heard about the threats of major flooding in Saratoga, and had never filled sandbags, but welcomed the opportunity to volunteer.
“We got a tour of the community earlier this morning to see the places where there actually was flooding,” says the senior-to-be English education major from Gillette. “It’s been pretty rewarding for me to come in and help people. I hope that somebody would come to help us if we ever needed it in Laramie.”
Later in the morning, Col. Scott Schofield, joint task force commander on site, stopped by to greet some of the UW volunteers.
“We appreciate all the volunteers who have come in. The people of Saratoga have been very good donating trucks and trailers to load and deliver sandbags. Everybody is focused, and it has been a smooth operation,” Schied says. “Almost everywhere we go in the state, whether it’s firefighting or for a flooding mission, there is always great community support.”
National Guard commanders asked that the UW group stay the entire day and invited it for dinner, which Collins gladly accepted, noting the outreach program that the university was fulfilling.
He adds that UW President Dick McGinity fully supported sending a group of university volunteers to Saratoga.
“He was 100 percent supportive and enthusiastic. We want to thank the president for his support and making this happen, providing the resources to bring our people over to Saratoga,” Collins adds. “I think our young volunteers are really enjoying themselves. The football players won’t be in the workout room today, but nonetheless, they will be getting a good workout.”
University of Wyoming football players Colby Kirkegaard and Shaun Wick stack sandbags in a truck Friday in Saratoga. Nearly 80 UW employees and student-athletes helped with flood relief efforts in the Carbon County community. (UW Photo)