'Gut-wrenching and heart-warming': Nebraska Catholics count blessings after record floods

'Gut-wrenching and heart-warming': Nebraska Catholics count blessings after record floods

Residents of Fremont, Neb., survey the aftermath of flood damage, March 2019. Credit: Fr. Damien Wee, courtesy of St Patrick's Catholic Church.
Residents of Fremont, Neb., survey the aftermath of flood damage, March 2019. Credit: Fr. Damien Wee, courtesy of St Patrick's Catholic Church.

.- If you ask a Nebraskan how the historic floods over the past few weeks have affected them, they are likely to count their blessings, and to tell you that it could have been worse.

They’ll thank God for sparing their lives, rather than curse him for the destruction of their homes or the washing away of their cattle.

It’s not, so much, a reflection of the severity of the disastrous flooding (which covered a third of the state at its peak, and will likely cost hundreds of millions of dollars in property, crop and livestock losses), but rather a reflection of the faith and indomitability found in many a Nebraskan soul.

“We in Nebraska, we come together,” Tony Hergott told CNA. Hergott is the Disaster Relief Chairman for the Knights of Columbus, and has been coordinating groups of Knights to assist in some of the hardest-hit communities in Nebraska, including his own hometown of Columbus, which sits just north of the Loup river right before it meets up with the Platte.

“The biggest challenge we have as Nebraskans is – there’s a lot of pride in Nebraska. People don’t ask for help. You get up, you dust yourself off, you change your clothes, and you fix it – and then you go and help your neighbor, and that’s just the way it is,” Hergott said.

Many people won’t ask for assistance, even if they badly need it, until they are done taking care of their neighbors, he added.

“Its gut-wrenching and heart-warming at the same time,” he said.

On Wednesday, March 14, heavy rains piled on top of already-heavy snows to create the perfect storm of flooding conditions. Rivers and waterways throughout the eastern part of the state overflowed their banks to historic levels, washing away roads, homes, bridges, livestock, and anything else that stood in the way.

To lay down his life for his friends

Fortunately, evacuations and the quick responses of emergency workers resulted in very few lives lost to the floods in Nebraska, though at least one life was lost while trying to save the life of another.

James Wilke, a farmer near Columbus, set out on Wednesday with his tractor, guided by emergency workers, to try and save the life of a motorist stranded in the flood waters on a country road.

When Wilke drove his tractor out over a bridge on Shell Creek, the bridge collapsed under the weight of the tractor and the pressure of the floodwaters, sweeping Wilke and his tractor downstream. Wilke’s body was later found downstream, near his own farm, reported the Omaha World-Herald.

Hergott said that while Wilke was not a Knight of Columbus, he was a “faith-filled man who...embodied all that it is to be a Knight, in service to his brother. ‘I am my brother’s keeper.’ He went out to try to save one life and in return gave his.”

“When you see things like that, it moves you,” he said.

Hergott said the Knights of Columbus immediately reached out to the Wilke family to offer financial assistance and support.

The Knights also sent groups out to the hardest-hit communities in the area, including North Bend, where they talked to families, handed out food, water, cleaning supplies and gift cards, and hosted a fish fry for the other emergency responders and volunteers.

“It’s a Catholic community over there, we wanted to make sure that the Catholics had non-meat to eat on a Friday in Lent,” he said.

“When we were cooking fish and everyone was sitting down to eat, people were joking around like nothing ever happened,” he said. “I mean it’s like your dinner table where you talk and you tell your stories, your good times and bad times, but it’s family time.”

Hergott said the flooding in Columbus and the surrounding areas has been catastrophic, though they are only just beginning to get the full gist of exactly how much property has been damaged or lost.

Some of the greatest needs going forward are going to be hot water heaters and furniture, as well as financial assistance for rebuilding, he said.

He also asked for prayers.

“In North Bend a lady told me, 'well, all we can do is pray'. And I said, 'no, the greatest thing we can do is pray'. Don’t downgrade praying, that is the greatest thing. Somebody told me that years ago, and I’ve used that ever since,” he said.

“It’s just stuff that we lost.”

Carol Waldow is a 73 year-old Nebraskan from Bellevue who also spoke of the importance of prayer.

On the day the floods came, Waldow was ordered to evacuate her home by emergency responders.

“I just said: Dear God, what am I supposed to do? And he said: Get out!”

Waldow escaped with her husband and their two poodles. Their home, which sat in a development right next to Offutt Air Force Base, was destroyed.

Waldow and her husband moved in with one of their sons and his family. They’ve already found a new, closer parish to go to in the interim (St. Wenceslaus in Omaha) and are signing the lease on a new, small apartment “so we’ll have somewhere to lay our heads.”

Waldow said that while thinking of her losses can sometimes make her “weepy,” she knows that she still has all of the most important things.

“It’s just stuff that we lost,” Waldow told CNA.

“I didn’t lose my faith, I didn’t lose my family, and I didn’t lose my friends. You know, and I really wasn’t living for all that stuff anyway, I’m living for better rewards in heaven. I’m not living for those knickknacks and pictures and things like that,” she said.

Waldow said she hoped the flood would be a good reminder to everyone that “we don’t live forever.”

“The things that we have are all gifts of God anyway, and we need to remember that to God we shall return, and it’s only through his blessing that we have life anyway,” she said.

When she’s tempted to feel sorry for herself, Waldow said she gets out her Magnificat and says her prayers.

“It’s just such a blessing that I have my faith, because without my faith and my family and my friends I’d have nothing anyway. It just brings me closer to God,” she said.

“We can’t always choose the kind of Lent we will have”

The levels and severity of the flooding was unlike anything most Nebraskans have seen in the state in their lifetimes.

“It came on so fast; I talked to a lady who was in her 90s, and she said that the only flood that was near this was in 1943, so it was kind of a once-in-a-hundred-years type of situation,” said Father Tim Forget, who, like many priests in rural Nebraska, is the pastor of two parishes – St. Jane Frances in Randolph and St. Mary in Osmond.

And, like many rural priests that Wednesday, Forget ended up being stranded away from his parish when the floods hit. Forget, who normally lives in Randolph, drove to Osmond that Wednesday to celebrate Mass and to hold adoration.

But soon after making the trip over, he realized: “Wow, this is really getting bad quick.”

Parents started calling to get their kids from school, and Forget opened up the normally-vacant Osmond rectory to teachers and families who couldn’t get back home. Then he tried to make the trip back to his Randolph rectory, but ended up rerouting to Norfolk, a nearby town, due to the numerous road closures.

Forget said his parishes “thankfully” didn’t sustain any damage, while the Catholic school had some water in the basement. Some parishioners homes were not as lucky.

Despite the damages, “there’s been a lot of positive people, it’s a very tight Catholic parish,” Forget said.

In a reflection in his March 31 bulletin, Forget wrote: “Small town Nebraska has a lot to teach the outside world about coming together and helping. We can’t always choose the kind of Lent we will have but we can choose what we will do when it comes to us. In so many ways I see all of you being such amazing examples of what it means to be a Christian family.”

Fr. Bill L'Heureux is another rural Nebraska priest whose life was made more interesting by the flooding, as he pastors four parishes in northeastern Nebraska: St. Lawrence in Silver Creek, St. Peter and Paul in Krakow, St. Rose of Lima in Genoa, and St. Edward in St. Edward.

After the floods, he offered to help another priest in a nearby parish with adoration.

“I told him I had to go through two time zones, the Pony Express, one Indian reservation and three check stations to get there,” he joked. “It’s kind of fun.”

Every weekend, L'Heureux celebrates one Mass at each parish. Except now, he is cut off from his St. Edward parish due to washed-away bridges and closed roads.

Like in Osmund, St. Edward was able to open up the vacant rectory to host some families who were driven out of their homes by the flooding until they could make more permanent arrangements, he said.

“I’m just so proud of everybody stepping up and helping each other out and taking care of their neighbors, it’s all the stuff we preach about on Sunday,” he said, recalling the Gospel passage about the fig tree bearing fruit.

“I’m just the gardener,” he said.

About 70 miles to the east of the Silver Creek area, the city of Fremont turned into an island after the floods cut off all roads and bridges leading into town.

Fr. William Nolte, pastor of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Fremont, had to be flown back into the town from Omaha after getting stranded during the floods.

“I called my principal and said hey, if you know anybody who has a plane or a helicopter so I can get out of here, whatever it costs, I’m going to need to get back. Within 15 minutes I got a call that it just so happened that a neighbor four doors down flies to work and he had flown in that day and gave me a ride back. It was very providential,” he said. “So it’s amazing how God has been taking care of his family down here.”

Nolte said people in the Fremont area are bracing for the long-haul; recovery from the floods could take months and in some cases years.

“This is not just a one week, two week, one month problem. This is going to be a problem, but an opportunity to take care of one another – this is going to be a several-year opportunity. And so they're bracing for that,” Nolte said.

Father Kizito Okhuoya is the pastor in the towns of Niobrara and Verdigre, which bore some of the worst of the brunt of the floods when the nearby Spencer dam failed March 14.

“The words I use are devastating, shocking, overwhelming, just unbelievable,” he said.

“People who have lived here all their life have never seen anything like it, some people recall that there was a flood in the '60s, but it’s nothing close to what they experienced this time around. We were kind of blindsided because nobody saw this coming,” he said.

While the parishes were spared any major damage, many homes were lost or damaged, and farms that had been in families for generations were wiped out. Chunks of ice swept in by the floods made much of the area nearly impassable before they melted.

“Parishioners lost a lot of their possessions,” Okhuoya said. “People lost collectibles, sentimental things, people lost a lot of stuff.”

But people from neighboring communities have stepped up to help, he added, sending crews of people to clean up mud, or pump out water, or haul trash out of flooded basements.

“It’s been unbelievable the generosity, the outreach, the kindness, the compassion that people have shown us, it’s very humbling for me to see all that,” he said.

The Archdiocese of Omaha has a special collection for flood relief, and he said he’s been getting calls of spiritual and material support from many places throughout the country.

Okhuoya said the clean-up process has been “very emotional”, as people come to terms with the scope of the losses they’ve suffered, so he teamed up with the Methodist pastor in town to offer an ecumenical prayer service where people were able to pray together and read God’s word, he said.

“In my weekend homilies since this happened, I’ve been pushing messages of hope and of God’s love, a message of gratitude. A message that maybe there are lessons here, that God wants us to rethink our priorities and focus on the things are important, because like I said in one of my homilies, sometimes we quibble and fight over nothing. But when this flood hit, nobody was fighting,” he said.

Small towns can sometimes have a way of letting small divisions fester over time, but it shouldn’t take a disaster to bring people together, Okhuoya said.

“Why can’t we stay this way? Why do we have to allow things like this to happen to force us to create that connection and to care and to show compassion? Why can’t we just always do that? We don’t need all these calamities to push us to where we can show that kind of compassion always,” he said.

“So why can’t we learn the lessons and always be the best we can be, as Christians, as Catholics, as citizens of this country, and do the best to work with each other, and do whatever is good, whatever is honorable, or whatever is going to touch the lives of people. For me … I think that’s what I am learning.”