Historic levels of flooding have struck the Midwest in recent weeks, and are particularly severe along the Missouri River and its tributaries and affecting many Nebraska residents. The flooding has been blamed for several deaths, billions in property damage and widespread destruction of harvests and livestock.
The dioceses affected by the flooding include the Archdiocese of Omaha, Nebraska. Deacon Tim McNeil, archdiocesan chancellor, said that while only one of the archdiocese’s churches was flooded — Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Lynch — many parishes have been “surrounded by water or are nearby towns that are underwater.”
The waters have receded, although there is a possibility of more flooding as Spring rains return, and the archdiocese “is still very much in the clean-up stage.” Many parishioners have lost homes and property, or are isolated as roads have been washed out. The deacon flew into Omaha immediately after the flooding, he said, and got a “bird’s eye” view of its effect on Nebraska and neighboring Iowa. He said, “It was astonishing to see so much of the area underwater.”
The archdiocese is taking up a collection to help victims, he noted, and donations are needed and welcome.
Among the hardest hit communities in the state is Fremont, Deacon McNeil said. Archbishop of Omaha George Lucas has visited the community to offer his support. While the community’s parish, St. Patrick’s, was not flooded, much of the surrounding area was. The parish has become “central headquarters for relief,” Deacon McNeil said, as different assistance organizations use the parish’s facilities to help victims. The following is an interview with Fr. Walter Nolte, St. Patrick’s pastor, about the parish’s role in helping victims.
Tell me about St. Patrick’s.
We have 2,200 registered families, with another 200 or 300 families who are unregistered who attend. We’re the only Catholic church in Fremont, which has about 23,000 people.
We have a diverse population, from business professionals to people who work on farms, and English and Spanish-speaking people.
What was your experience with the flooding?
On March 15, the roads closed about 3 or 4 p.m. The local Lutheran church had been designated as a refuge center, so I reached out to a local coordinator, and asked what we could do to help. We were told to stand by. As it turned out, we were not called upon, as there were already enough shelters.
On March 16, the townspeople of Fremont rallied, and did what they could to save their community. Hundreds of people turned out to fill sand bags and do whatever else they could do to help.
On March 17, we saw the aftermath of the flooding. The roads around us were flooded, so no one could leave the area. There are three priests at St. Patrick’s, so we went over to the shelters, made ourselves known and said we were available to help. We talked and prayed with volunteers if they wanted to. We did what we could to insert ourselves into the situation.
That evening, someone donated some food, and we started to use the school kitchen to prepare meals for the needy. The woman in charge of the kitchen actually had to leave her own home because of the flooding. We made 700 burritos that night and took them out to people in need in the area.
World Central Kitchen, which provides meals to people after natural disasters, asked to use our kitchen, and has since been preparing about 1,500 meals a day and taking them into the flooded areas. Our parish administrative offices have become a volunteer resource center, working with FEMA, to coordinate volunteers who want to help with the disaster.
How serious have you observed the flooding in Fremont to be?
Parts of the city on higher elevations are dry, but the lower levels have a lot of damage. It’s still being assessed. Homes are being tagged — red if it needs to be torn down, yellow if it needs work and green if it’s okay to enter. I’ve heard about 200 homes in the area have been red tagged.
Our parishioners are fatigued. They are exhausted, both physically and mentally from the stress. There is a sense of poverty and helplessness. In the immediate aftermath of the flooding, no one could leave Fremont, as all the roads were flooded. Most of the roads have been cleared, but traveling on them is much slower than before the flooding.
But everyone seems to be asking, “What can I do?” People are working their day jobs and then come home to help out in the evenings. It’s great that people want to help now, but we just hope people will still be concerned a month from now, or a year from now, after time passes. At St. Patrick’s, we’ve asked each of our families to be an advocate for another family victimized by the flooding.
As I look around, I see that there is going to be an immediate need for drywall. There is also a need for furniture, as much has been damaged and cannot be used again. People have also lost mementos that bring special memories — sentimental things that they’ll never get back.
I’m proud of our community. They’ve really rallied and taken good care of each other. Regardless of age, race or economic status, people are lending a hand. You knock on a door to offer someone fresh water and a burrito, and they say, “No, give it to that person over there, he needs it more than me.” I’ve seen such wonderful generosity of spirit.