A pilot for 10 years, Adam Liston was at work, away from his small Nebraska community, when record flooding forced his wife and two kids to evacuate. When he got back, he knew what he had to do.
“When I was able to return to Nebraska and saw the devastation, I just knew I had to help in the best way I could. And that was fly people in and out of the isolated town of Fremont,” Liston, 29, of nearby Woodcliff, told CNN. “I know how helpless I felt being away from my family during this, and I wanted to reunite as many people as I could.”
Liston is among an impromptu crew of private pilots who have offered free flights to residents stranded in Fremont. Deadly flooding in parts of Nebraska has turned whole communities into islands as the Platte and Elkhorn rivers swelled to record highs.
Fremont’s 28,000 residents were cut off at the height of the flooding. Flood records have been shattered in 17 places, and more rivers will likely break cresting records this week, the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency said.
Liston personally airlifted about 40 people thanks to a crowdfunding campaign launched with the help of his wife, Mandi, he said.
“I started at 8 a.m. on Sunday, running purely on generous donations, but by noon, dozens more pilots and planes showed up, eager to help,” he added. “It was a full community effort.”
More than 30 airplanes have flown into the Fremont Municipal Airport since the flooding began to help more than 500 flood victims, said Jim Kjeldgaard, owner and operator of Fremont Aviation. The pilots, who’ve come from across Nebraska and neighboring Kansas and Wyoming, are donating their time to help shuttle stranded residents to and from their hometowns.
“We’ve had an awful lot of airplanes and a heck of a lot of people. It was pretty much chaos a few days ago; the situation is somewhat under control now, as some of the highways are opening back up,” Kjeldgaard told CNN Tuesday morning.
“These people are taking days off of work to do this,” he said. “The general aviation people and some business aircraft have stepped right up to the plate. They took care of the situation the best it could be taken care of, considering.”
‘Most people had a look of relief when they got a ride’
Another pilot, Adam Marshall, told CNN he heard about the airlifting effort from a guy he met just a couple of weeks ago. The man hangars his airplane in a building next to Marshall’s.
“He texted me and asked if I could help, and I thought it was a great opportunity to use my pilot skills for good,” Marshall said.
Marshall, who has been a private pilot for almost three years, said he made more than 30 trips between Fremont and Omaha’s Millard neighborhood and transported about 40 people. His phone was ringing nonstop for two days from people asking to be transported, he said.
“I transported the entire Midland University dance team to Omaha so they wouldn’t miss their commercial flight and a woman named Allie who has five kids and had been cut off from her family,” he said, noting that two of the children were 18-month-old twins.
“I transported another woman whose husband had been airlifted to Omaha but she couldn’t be with him because the roads were closed and there was no room in the helicopter,” Marshall said.
“Most people had a look of relief when they got a ride,” he said. “I got a lot of hugs the last few days!”
In Kjeldgaard’s 48 years in the business, he’s never seen a response quite like this, he said.
“We’ve had flood situations here before but never this magnitude. We never needed this evacuation-type response. I’ve been here 48 years,” he said.
“That’s the outpouring from general aviation pilots,” he added. “We’re a close-knit community, even if we’re a long ways away. You hate to see disasters like this happen, but the support was very nice to see.”
CNN’s Marlena Baldacci contributed to this story.