The Nebraska Association of Resources Districts (NARD) is the trade association that represents Nebraska’s 23 natural resources districts (NRDs), local agencies that handle water quantity and quality issues, soil-erosion control, flood prevention, and other environmental concerns across the state. On the night of Saturday, May 30, 2020, the NARD’s Lincoln, Nebraska, headquarters were destroyed by arsonists, resulting in approximately a quarter million dollars’ worth of personal property damage. In this interview, NARD Executive Director Dean Edson tells Irrigation Leader about how the organization is recovering from this event and the lessons it holds for other agencies.
Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about your background.
Dean Edson: I grew up on an irrigated family farm in Gothenburg, Nebraska, and farmed on my own after high school for about 10 years. We restructured the farm in 1984, during the ag crisis. I then moved to Lincoln to work for the animal science department at the University of Nebraska. While there, I earned a degree in animal science and agribusiness in 1986. After that, I went to work for the Nebraska Farm Bureau, serving 11 years as its director of state governmental relations. During my time at the Farm Bureau, I also earned a master of business administration from the University of Nebraska in 1991. For the last 23 years, I have served as the executive director of the NARD. I also currently own and operate the family farm in Gothenburg.
Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about the history of the NARD.
Dean Edson: In 1972, the Nebraska Legislature merged 154 political subdivisions related to some aspect of natural resource management into 23 NRDs, whose service areas follow river basin boundaries. The NRDs are responsible for managing groundwater quality and quantity. They also work with landowners on soil erosion issues, wildlife habitat, tree planting, and all other natural resources issues. The NARD is the trade association for the NRDs.
Irrigation Leader: Please tell our readers about the incident in May when your office was destroyed by arsonists.
Dean Edson: Our office is located on Lincoln Mall, a four-block stretch between the Nebraska State Capitol and the City-County Building. There were protests that turned into a riot there late on the night of Saturday, May 30. The rioters broke into the building and started fires in multiple locations. They also broke into other nearby buildings and lit fires. There were not enough police or firemen down there—they were outnumbered and outmanned. The fire in our building got out of control and basically destroyed it. Firefighters were able to extinguish fires in the other buildings before any significant damage was done, but most of the glass doors and windows in the four-block area were broken.
Irrigation Leader: How were you notified about the fire?
Dean Edson: One of my employees was watching the late news and sent out a group text. However, I had already gone to bed. When I woke up on Sunday morning, I saw five or so text messages and a couple of phone messages from my employees notifying me that our building had been destroyed.
Irrigation Leader: What did you lose in the fire?
Dean Edson: At one point in time, we thought we were going to be able to salvage quite a few items. Our insurance required us to hire a certified salvage company to evaluate what we had left and determine what was salvageable. At this point, only about 10–15 percent of the furniture and supplies are salvageable. The salvageable furniture items are pieces of an office set, but not a complete set. Basically, we will end up replacing all office furniture. We were able to save a lot of paper files that were in steel cabinets, but others were destroyed.
Irrigation Leader: How many employees work in your office?
Dean Edson: We have five full-time employees and one part-time employee.
Irrigation Leader: Did you lose all your computers as well?
Dean Edson: All the electronic equipment was determined to be nonsalvageable. We had two new laptop computers delivered to the office the Friday afternoon before the fire. We hadn’t even gotten the invoices for them yet. Every piece of electronic equipment in the office, including the copiers, printers, computers, televisions, smart TVs, and even the coffee pot, was destroyed. We purchased new laptops and printers for the employees so that they can work from home.
Irrigation Leader: What has the process of dealing with law enforcement been like?
Dean Edson: We are cooperating with the Lincoln Police, the Lincoln Fire Department, and the Nebraska State Patrol on their investigations. We’re trying to assist them in whatever way we can. There is an apartment building that is primarily for retired people across the alley from our office, and there were several individuals in that building who were eyewitnesses to the event. They have been cooperating with the police to try to identify the perpetrators.
Irrigation Leader: Does your insurance cover you for damage inflicted by criminal acts?
Dean Edson: We purchased the extra policy coverage for acts of terrorism and riot, so fortunately we have some coverage. However, working with the insurance company adjusters has given me a newfound sympathy for anyone who has ever been through a fire. The adjusters do not make life simple for you. It gets more complicated when you have leased equipment, such as a copier and postage machine, on your policy. That brings in third parties that you need to negotiate with. We’re having some problems on the insurance side with the adjustment process, even though we are covered. I was told by a friend of mine who experienced a fire at his business to not expect a check for quite a while—maybe a year or more.
Irrigation Leader: What have you learned from this process that you want to pass on to others?
Dean Edson: Our office was on the second floor of a building that we leased. We did not have security cameras up there, because never in my wildest dreams did I ever think that something like this would happen to us. We had no security system up there to record who was entering the building. The people who owned the building and had their offices on the first floor did not have security cameras either. That would have been of tremendous value in determining who was responsible for this.
Wherever we go next, we will have security cameras. We will make sure that those cameras beam their information off site, so that if someone damages the equipment, we will still have backups of the recordings.
I would also strongly suggest that people keep an accurate and up-to-date inventory of office property, purchase prices, and leased equipment, such as copiers and postage machines. I would also suggest going over your policy with a fine-toothed comb to make sure you have the right coverage. Even if you have replacement-cost insurance, that does not necessarily mean you will get a check for the replacement value of all items.
With the insurance claims process, we first had to hire a qualified salvage company to assist with inventory. We now have over 800 items on that list and are in the process of figuring out when they were purchased and for how much. We will not get an insurance claim check from the insurance company until that is complete on all 800 items. It will be a two-check process. The first check will be an adjusted-cost value, to discount the items for age, and the second check will come after we have replaced the items.
Irrigation Leader: Did you lose your computer data, or were you using the cloud?
Dean Edson: We had switched over to Office 365 and were saving our new information in the cloud. However, we had a lot of old paper documents that had not been converted to an electronic format and stored in the cloud. When she had extra time, our part-time employee was scanning documents and saving them to the cloud, but we were a long way from getting all of them scanned. Now, it’s too late for a lot of that. My advice for management is to get that stuff scanned and saved in an electronic format, whether in the cloud or backed up on a hard drive off site.
Irrigation Leader: Where are your employees working right now?
Dean Edson: They are working from home. The real struggle here has been the fact that we no longer have our equipment or office supplies. Just think about the simple, mundane tasks you do at your office. In this situation, a task that normally takes 20 minutes now turns into a trip to an office supply store, a copier store, and the post office.
Even if I did get a temporary office, I don’t have any furniture or equipment to put in it. We also don’t want to buy all new or used office furniture for a temporary office, because it might not fit the new permanent location. This is complicated further by waiting on the insurance adjustment process. Luckily, our employees have some experience working from home because of the COVID‑19 pandemic. Our office had been shut down, and we had just come back to work full time the week prior to this event. We had had a month or more of experience of everybody working from home. All the employees are doing their best to keep up with their jobs and responsibilities. We have met at temporary meeting locations or gotten together for lunch at a restaurant and stayed an extra hour to take care of some business. The Lower Platte South NRD has allowed us to use the conference space at its office when we need to hold a meeting.
Irrigation Leader: Have you heard from the state legislature or any of the state officials about this?
Dean Edson: We have not been contacted by anybody from the state, the city council, or the mayor’s office. Ironically, the mayor of Lincoln participated in a defund the police rally just a block away from our office a couple of days after the fire. That action did not instill confidence that downtown Lincoln is going to be a safe working environment for our employees.
Irrigation Leader: You haven’t heard from any of the legislators?
Dean Edson: One state senator walked by the building on the way to his apartment building and looked at our burned building for a little bit when I was there. That was the extent of it. He just happened to be walking by when I was standing outside taking a break from doing inventory with the salvage company.
Irrigation Leader: What are the next steps for you, your office, and your association?
Dean Edson: We put together an advisory committee of our executive board and some NRD managers from across the state to start looking at new office locations. Basically, our slate has been wiped clean, so we’re taking this as an opportunity to reevaluate whether we should stay in downtown Lincoln, move elsewhere in the Lincoln area, or move somewhere else entirely. There are a lot of decisions to make—whether to purchase or lease, whether to find a temporary office, where it should be located, what sort of insurance we need, etc. It has been a challenge to get the majority to agree, but we are getting things sorted out. It will eventually turn out fine, but it’s not something I want to go through again.
Irrigation Leader: Are you able to put a dollar figure on your losses?
Dean Edson: I would estimate our personal property losses at a little shy of $250,000 if we replace all that we lost. I don’t know what the emotional damage is—that’s the thing that I worry about the most. I am worried about the health and well-being of my employees because the office where they have worked for as long as 20 years is gone. They considered it a second home. They have come to the realization that they are starting over. Many of them couldn’t help but wonder, “What would have happened if we had been there on the second floor? What would we have done?” I’m glad it happened when we weren’t there so that no one got hurt. I am trying to address any emotional concerns that they may have. We have talked through the riot event and the office relocation process. We are trying to stay positive and keep moving forward. I am trying to encourage people to think about the future and to use this as an opportunity to grow and to improve things.
Irrigation Leader: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Dean Edson: The mission of the NRDs and consequently of the NARD is to manage our state’s resources; protect our water quantity and quality; and protect the lives, futures, and property for all Nebraskans today and for future generations. Even though we have gone through this little episode, we will not lose sight of that role and that mission. We will continue to work to protect those resources, the economy, and the future.