On a windy Saturday afternoon in the small town of Ericson, Nebraska, resident Joe Wadas took a stroll he's taken countless times over the years along the shore side of the town's only lake.
"One of the nice things, I think, in the spring is a lot of the geese come back and they have their goslings," Wadas said. "Oh, I hear them! You hear them?
"There they are, up there. There are just all kinds of animals around here."
He continued to point out the local wildlife, and recalled the long summer days and nights he's spent here both in his youth and in recent years.
But as he continued his walk along the shoreline, there was one thing that was about as empty as the dozens of cabins overlooking the waterline, and that was Lake Ericson itself.
"Just keep on following the path down that way and you'll be able to see where it washed out, and where the dam is itself," Wadas said. "Before the flood went out, we had about 62 acres. Now I think we have about 10 acres of water."
The summer of 2010 saw a wet May in central Nebraska, followed by nearly 10 inches of rain during the second week of June. Water levels in Lake Ericson exceeded its dam's height and soon began to pour into the lake's emergency spillway. It wasn't long, however, before that spillway gave out and water drained from the lake.
The results were tough for Ericson. Without a lake, the thriving summer tourism crowds that used to come from all across the state began to slow down. Wadas described how the businesses in the town of 104 people also had a harder time making ends meet.
"The convenience store really suffered," he said. "People thought you couldn't come here and do anything. And there was nobody coming after that first month."
But for Wadas and other town residents, losing the lake also meant losing a staple of Ericson.
As president of the Lake Ericson Corporation, Wadas and fellow board members began searching far and wide for the funds necessary to repair the damage to the lake. That's included a $75,000 grant from the Nebraska Environmental Trust to repair the washed-out geo-tube area of the lake. But raising the rest of the more than $350,000 required to complete the repairs has been no small task. The Federal Emergency Management Agency rejected a request to obtain funds for repairs, so the money has trickled in from fundraising efforts of all sizes, everything from local auctions to selling T-shirts out of the town's convenience store.
Photo courtesy of Lake Ericson Corporation
Many of the cabins lining the shores of lake Ericson remain empty; due to the off-season and the flooding.
Wadas held up one of the shirts up proudly.
"We designed this shirt to be a caterpillar pushing the word Lake Erikson' and then Thanks for helping rebuild our future,'" he said.
Every dollar began to matter, and when one unique source of funding came into the picture, the residents of Ericson jumped at the opportunity.
An online Reader's Digest voting contest entitled "We Hear You America" offered the promise of upwards of $50,000 to any community within the United States. Cities and towns could register to be awarded the grant, which would provide financial aid for what the site called "community improvements." Soon, disaster-stricken towns like Joplin, Missouri registered for the contest as voters logged on to show their support. Wadas said It didn't take long for Ericson to throw their own hat in the ring. The people of Ericson rallied around the opportunity.
"It's just crazy," he said. "They'll say, 'I can't remember how you get on there.' They're some older people and I'll tell them how to do it. The next thing you know, they say they're voting! Several of the schools are even involved. They have computer classes where young kids try to learn as well, then they'll have them doing it for a little bit."
And they weren't alone. Residents and those who had visited the town over the years and built their own memories began logging on and voting. The result was early 800,000 votes from around the country for the small town of 104, and a 10th place finish. That meant two things: an award of $5,000 dollars to go towards the lake's repairs and another lifeline in moving one step forward to finishing the lake. But as Wadas put it, there would still be a long road ahead. But it's not one, they'd intend on straying from just yet.
"We're trying to fix it. It's just a slow project," Wadas said. "There's just a lot of permitting. But, I mean, people want that thing back. The more they see it, the more they want it back."