High levels of rain this spring have led to extensive flooding in many Midwestern dioceses, leaving some parish properties flooded and many parishioner homes damaged or destroyed. While the rivers are receding, there is a possibility of more flooding in the upcoming months, as some forecasters are predicting a wet summer. Complicating problems have been a series of tornadoes which have hit Midwestern communities, causing loss of life and extensive damage. Catholic communities throughout the region are responding by helping their neighbors in need, and beginning a rebuilding process that could take years.
Webbers Falls is a small community on the banks of the Arkansas River in Eastern Oklahoma, and was among the communities hit hardest by flooding. Many homes and businesses are underwater in the town of 600 causing residents to flee, but miraculously one of the few buildings untouched by floodwater is the town’s St. Joseph Catholic Church, part of the Diocese of Tulsa.
“It was a miracle that our church was not affected,” said Fr. Lawrence Nwachukwu, pastor. “All of the surrounding buildings have filled with water, but nothing got into the church.”
Father is based in nearby Sallisaw, but comes to St. Joseph’s regularly to say Mass. In May, he said, townspeople were alerted to the possibility of flooding and began to take their valuables to safety. Although some flooding was expected, he continued, “no one knew it was going to be this huge. We thought it would be minimal flooding, and people would be able to return in a few days. But only a few buildings were spared.”
As townspeople are beginning to return, he said, they’re finding “a whole lot of messy stuff—mud and debris—that they can’t walk through. You see furniture, appliances, mattresses and other items scattered all over.”
While the electricity is back on, water and sewer lines are still blocked. Among the worst hit buildings, Father said, was the Webbers Falls School; he noted that the community’s two other Christian churches, First Assembly of God and First Baptist, were also flooded. He said, “The few people who have returned to the community are dispirited and in pain. They’re wearing a gloomy look; we’ve never seen anything like this before.”
St. Joseph’s has begun looking for ways to help, he continued, both with cleanup volunteers and by making financial donations. He said he suspects that Webbers Falls residents of limited means and lacking in flood insurance will not be returning.
Debbie Crowley of Catholic Charities of Eastern Oklahoma, which serves the Diocese of Tulsa, said that there was extensive flooding in the eastern third of the state. Catholic Charities has helped with emergency assistance, but its key efforts, she said, will be in the next 18 months helping residents to rebuild their homes and lives.
“Our role is to do long-term case management for those who need help,” she said. “This could mean assistance to those without insurance or who are underinsured, or those who have lost their jobs because their places of work have been destroyed.”
Catholic Charities staff is currently making their way into flooded communities to assess damage, and make victims aware of their presence and the resources they have available. One client they are assisting is construction worker Jesus Monsivais of Muskogee, another community along the Arkansas River about 25 miles away from Webbers Falls. It, too, experienced severe flooding.
Monsivais and his seven-month pregnant wife Rocio saw their small home flooded and their possessions destroyed. Crowley said, “[Rocio] said she lost everything that she was collecting for the baby and also her wedding dress. Jesus recently bought a car to use when the baby comes, but it was under water, too.”
The couple are trying to stay upbeat despite the challenges, Crowley said, temporarily moving in with relatives while beginning the rebuilding process with Catholic Charities’ help. She encouraged concerned Catholics to help the Monsivais family and other flood victims by making a donation at their Catholic Charities website.
Deacon Louis Leonatti of St. Brendan Parish in Mexico, Missouri, of the Diocese of Jefferson City participated in St. Vincent de Paul Society relief efforts in Jefferson City and Eldon. While Jefferson City has experienced some flooding, most of the Society’s relief efforts where to help victims of tornadoes which had ripped through their communities May 23. Volunteers listened to the stories of 350 victims over a three-day period in June, distributing $25 Walmart gift cards to pay for food and gas.
“The people we spoke with are resilient, and want to get back on their feet and get going,” he said.
He recalled the first victim he spoke to was a blind woman whose apartment had been destroyed. Her greatest concern, he said, was that she had lost her Braille machine. Another victim who came to mind was a disabled man living in a homeless shelter that had been destroyed. The electricity had been out for several days, and the refrigerated food available to them had spoiled.
Deacon Leonatti surveyed a historic section of Jefferson City, seeing many of its two-story brick buildings destroyed. A car dealership he saw had cars stacked up one upon another. In Eldon, he saw extensive tree damage, and an apartment complex destroyed. The flooding and tornadoes have combined to delay the planting of the region’s important corn crop, he noted.
The deacon is looking forward to other efforts to help victims, and noted that those who benefit are not only the recipients, but those giving the aid. He said, “I noticed that helping others has helped me in my spiritual life, and the other volunteers. I also think it helps our diocese when we reach out to more people.”
Donations to relief efforts in the Diocese of Jefferson City may be made at https://diojeffcity.org/disaster-relief/.