A pair of Buffalo Bills are doing their part to help their homeland.
Offensive linemen Jeremiah Sirles and Spencer Long have watched as their home state of Nebraska has been ravaged by flooding. In the past week alone, 74 cities, 65 counties and four tribal areas in the state have declared states of emergency because of extreme water levels – leaving thousands of homes, businesses and farmland in ruins.
“To say it hits home is kind of the right way to say it, literally, because it really did hit my home,” said Long, who grew up in Elkhorn, Neb., a town of more than 8,000 that sits next to the Elkhorn River. “Driving around it and being around it all the time, it’s just been in my face. It’s the real deal out here. I don’t think the nation really understands what’s going on out here.”
Long and Sirles are working together to try and raise awareness. As part of their response, the pair will host a dinner Thursday night in Schuyler, Neb., for first responders, law enforcement, volunteers and victims in the impacted community.
“The great thing about Nebraska, one of the main reasons I love it here, is we are such a sense of community,” Sirles said. “We're such a sense of family, just as a state. When stuff like this happens, it's kind of a take care of your own type of thing. I'm blessed to be in the position that I am – with football being the platform that it is – that we can raise awareness for this and we can find ways to help these people.”
Days of heavy rains associated with last week’s “bomb cyclone” storm and subsequent snowmelt have flooded rivers, causing widespread damage. Three deaths have been blamed on the flooding, according to USA Today, and more than seven million people in 14 states are in areas with flood warnings. Damages to farms and ranches in Nebraska alone are approaching $1 billion, according to the state’s farm bureau. Vice President Mike Pence toured the area this week.
“It’s been terrible,” Sirles said. “It’s something that has been hard to watch. I’ve been here for 10 years now, and I know people who are directly affected.”
Sirles and Long played together at Nebraska, and were recently reunited as teammates when Long signed with the Bills. They both live in Lincoln, Neb., and have been training together. After a workout Monday, they came up with a plan to help in any way they could. Sirles contacted a family friend who has deep ties to the affected areas and asked what was needed.
“People are talking about raising money, doing all that stuff, but right now what these people really need is food, supplies and just to recharge,” Sirles said. “These guys have been running on fumes for a week now and there’s no end in sight. The work is really just getting started.
“Spencer and I decided, ‘Let’s have a dinner and feed people,’ ” Sirles said. “When you bring people together in a collective dinner setting … it gives them a chance to recharge, build community and focus on, ‘OK, what is our next big need?’ The first step to take care of them and the find out what the greater need is and move on to step two.”
Sirles, Long and another Nebraska native, Kansas City Royals pitcher Jake Diekman, are footing the bill for a dinner that will have between 400 and 800 people.
“If you have been displaced or have faced any devastation with the flooding, this invitation is for you,” Sirles wrote on his Twitter account. “If you need someone to talk to, pray with or even need a warm hug or handshake, this invitation is for you.”
Long’s family home came out relatively unscathed since it sits on higher ground, but several of his neighbors weren’t so fortunate. He said some family friends who run a dog kennel have lost their home and business. Luckily, they were able to evacuate themselves and the animals, but their property near the Elkhorn River has been destroyed.
“It looked like the house was in the middle of the Elkhorn River,” Long said. “It’s just terrible.”
Those images have been difficult for Long to see, but inspired him to try and give back.
“Really what started it, aside from seeing all that, was watching my community come together and put their neighbors in front of themselves,” Long said. “It was really empowering and gave me more of a sense of pride to be where I’m from.
“This is my community. This is where I grew up. This is my home. People that I know were directly affected. People that (Jeremiah) knows were directly affected. We’ve got to do something. People really need help out here.”
Unfortunately, it may not be over, either. Long-range forecasts show that flooding could be a problem deep into spring, with the risk of El Nino-produced strong storms lasting into May.
Both Long and Sirles said Thursday’s dinner is just the first step in what will be a more thorough fundraising effort. They want to meet with those responding to and impacted by the flooding to get a better idea of what is needed. Both players encouraged anyone interested in helping the recovery efforts to follow their social media accounts – Long is on Twitter @slong_61 and Sirles is @Sirles71_HSKR. Once fundraising plans have been finalized, updates will be posted there.