Devastating floods can't deter Kyle Rotert in his quest to become an engineer
Kyle Rotert has taken a long, winding, almost 10-year journey to finding his career path, and it has led him back to where it started.
The devastating March 2019 floods that rendered his hometown of Waterloo a virtual island for days helped convince him that he made the right decisions about his journey.
Rotert is a 28-year-old senior architectural engineering major at the Durham School of Architectural Engineering and Construction on the College of Engineering’s Scott Campus location. After graduating from high school in 2009, he enrolled at the University of Nebraska at Kearney as an elementary education and psychology major. Three years later, in the spring of 2013, Rotert enlisted in the Army and began considering a career in engineering.
The draw of his home and family, and having a high-quality AE program nearby, made the decision very easy, Rotert said.
“I know buildings. I grew up building them with my dad, who runs a construction company in Omaha,” Rotert said. “I worked for him the summer before I went back to school at UNL, and enjoyed it. I started talking to architects and engineers about what they do and the pieces started coming together. I like the puzzle aspect of engineering, and I know construction, so it made sense to go into the structural aspect.”
The time spent in the Army helped convince Rotert he should become active in his community. He became part of the town’s Park and Tree Board and serves as a volunteer firefighter.
In both of those roles, Rotert was very active in the efforts to combat the rising waters of the Elkhorn River, which last month threatened to breach the levee east of town.
It also brought back memories of the tragic 2016 flash flooding that inundated Fort Hood, Texas, where Rotert was stationed. Nine soldiers were killed there when a transport vehicle they were riding in was swept up in the swollen Owl Creek.
“When Fort Hood flooded, we had to work on that flood and deal with the victims and the aftermath. That put me in a unique position to deal with this flooding.”
While it was a personal mission to help save his town, Rotert also gained some experience in engineering.
“I volunteered with getting the sandbags filled and arranging them to fortify the levee,” Rotert said. “We were trying to fill that in with rocks and anything that we could.
“Michael Bash (from JEO Consulting) was our engineer, who stayed in town with us and tried to make sure our levee held. He taught us what to look for, how to balance out the water that was seeping in versus the water on the outside. It was definitely hands-on experience.”
The Elkhorn River began rising early in the week and by Wednesday (March 13), it had reached 17 feet, or about two feet from flood stage.
By Friday, it had jumped to 24.11 feet, breaking the record crest set in the March 1962 flooding. That’s when the main streets that provide access from Waterloo to nearby Omaha had been closed – Maple Street, which runs along the northern border of the town, was first, followed in the next few hours by Dodge Street, just south of town, and then Center and Q Streets by mid-afternoon.
With flooding along the Platte River to the west, Waterloo had “become our own little island,” Rotert said. “That’s when we started thinking this was a little more serious than we thought it was going to be. We had only four inches left of our levee before the water would start coming over. That’s when we started getting more worried.”
That night, Rotert and other volunteers took shifts keeping an eye on the levee and the sandbags fortifying it. They walked up and down, shining flashlights to make certain all was holding up well or that more boils hadn’t popped up and caused more deterioration.
“We had someone walking all night, putting sandbags in new areas, putting up makeshift blockades around those boils,” Rotert said.
On Saturday, the river peaked at 24.63 feet or nearly six feet above flood stage, then started to recede. The relief, Rotert said, was short-lived as a rain storm rolled in late Saturday night.
“We thought the worst was over. We thought we were good. Then it went back up and spiked again just a few feet short of the high point,” Rotert said. “That put us in panic mode. But it started to drain back down on Sunday and Monday and we got some of the roads open to get access to Waterloo.”
Now that the flood waters have receded and the rivers are back to a more normal depth, there are new problems.
“Our roads, over on Dodge where it becomes Highway 275, that was completely destroyed, and that’s sending a lot of traffic through Waterloo right now,” Rotert said. “We’re watching the levee on the southern part of town closely now and we’re worried because it has become such a high-traffic area. It’s going to need to be re-stabilized again after Dodge is opened up and 275 allows people to bypass our area.”
Rotert said he’s been grateful to the faculty from the College of Engineering, especially Assistant Professor of Practice in Construction Kelli Herstein, who have checked in on him regularly since the flooding to offer their support and knowledge to help Rotert and the Village of Waterloo as they work to recover.
“They’ve been a huge support, to me and to the town,” Rotert said. “Dr. Herstein has been a huge resource and a mentor to me. She’s been making sure I’m good and asking ‘is there any way we can help out?’ Faculty and staff from the College of Engineering have been out there (to Waterloo) and they’ve been helpful and giving suggestions for what needs to be done.”
Though Waterloo’s levee held, the devastation caused by the recent flooding leaves plenty of work to be done nearby, Rotert said.
“We took quite a hit,” Rotert said. “On the agricultural side, it’s going to be rough for a long time. So much of the topsoil has been washed away that some farmers won’t be able to grow crops in their usual amounts for three or four years.”
Rotert said he plans to stay “for many years to come.”
“I moved back here because this is home, and it’s what was right,” Rotert said. “And that’s the reason I wanted to be in this (AE) program. This adventure with the levee and thinking about the puzzle of what we have to do appeals to me personally and as an engineer. Plus, I want to give back, which is why I try to volunteer a lot.”
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