Diocesan News

Catholics come to aid of fellow Nebraskans

Parishes, agencies assist in flood relief

Special to the Register by Fr. Kenneth Borowiak, state chaplain for the Nebraska Knights of Columbus

North Bend (SNR) - It was the perfect storm - an oxymoron if there ever was one. Coming at the end of a long, cold, snowy winter, meteorologists called it a “bomb cyclone.”

An intense storm consisting of blinding snow, high winds, fog, rain and melting snows hit Nebraska the week of March 10. The result was devastating. The storm shut down interstates and highways, destroyed roads and bridges, crippled transportation and utilities and cut off entire communities across Nebraska.

The combination of heavy rain, snow melt and ice jams combined to produce unprecedented flooding across the state. State officials said the flooding was the worst the state has seen in more than 50 years.

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts declared a state of emergency March 12 and put into motion disaster relief efforts through state agencies and programs, notably, NEMA, (Nebraska Emergency Management Agency). Gov. Ricketts visited several flooded communities March 16 and wrote on Twitter that he witnessed “unbelievable devastation.”

Preliminary estimates of damage to homes and businesses in the state is more than $1.3 billion state officials said, announcing that three-fourths of the state’s counties have declared an emergency.

The flooding caused widespread damage to stored grain and fields where planting will begin soon, and left livestock — cattle, hogs and chicken — stranded or drowned.

Vice President Mike Pence visited Nebraska March 19 to survey storm damage and to gather information for federal government declarations and assistance. As a result of the vice president’s visit, President Donald Trump declared a major disaster March 21 for the State of Nebraska resulting from severe winter weather and massive flooding. That declaration opens the door to federal aid through FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) to help state, tribal and local recovery efforts.

Catholics Respond

As the state was being pummeled by severe weather, Bishop James Conley kept in contact with parishes and Catholic Social Services. Even before the extent of the damage was known, Bishop Conley asked Catholic Social Services to coordinate response efforts across the diocese and asked parishes to assist victims by taking up second collections at weekend Masses.

“I asked Catholic Social Services and parishes to assist in disaster/flood relief because their mission as Catholic Social Services of Southern Nebraska is to perform Works of Mercy,” Bishop Conley said. “These are our neighbors and they need our help and our prayers.

“These devastating floods are an opportunity to respond to the call of God to serve others.”

Bishop Conley reached out to pastors and asked them to help flood victims by taking up second collections in their parishes if they wished.

“In these times that are so difficult for so many, it is more important than ever to show love and compassion to those who are hurting,” he said.
Catholic Social Services

Immediately, Father Christopher Kubat and Father Justin Fulton, executive and assistant executive directors of Catholic Social Services, organized relief efforts among the 135 parishes of the diocese.

Father Kubat  said the most urgent need was for monetary donations. In response, Catholic schools across the diocese and CSS began teaming up to raise money.

“Our children see the devastation and they, too, want to help,” Father Kubat said. He devised a plan to include children.

“We are asking that for those schools interested in helping, they hold a “quarter drive” to raise money to assist the victims,” Father Kubat said. “The idea is for students to donate quarters for the flood relief effort. Of course... any monetary donation can be counted in terms of quarters,” he added.

Father Fulton said the clean-up efforts likely will take weeks if not months and said donations will be on-going.

One of CSS’ efforts has been to provide bottled water to affected towns across Nebraska. For Father Fulton, the bottled-water drive alone showed how so many in the state are linked.

Peru State College, where Catholic Social Services delivered water March 20, is also the college where Father Fulton obtained a master’s degree. And the nearby town of Auburn — that is helping raise funds in conjunction with CSS for flood relief and bottled water supplies — is where Father Fulton grew up. Most of Peru had been under water from the flooding that began March 14 after a combination of rain, melting snow, and ice jams caused rivers to overflow.

“Everyone knows everyone” in Nebraska, Father Fulton said, especially since the state relies heavily on agriculture for its well-being and many current city dwellers have ties to farms that have been in families for generations.

“We’re all connected,” he said. “And with the outpouring of support for those harmed by the floods, Nebraskans are reminded that we are connected as a human family,” Father Fulton stated.

But even in midst of this disaster that hit farming communities so hard, he maintains that people are not giving up, especially on their faith.

“With anything, you’ve got to be able to see God working,” he said, adding, “we’re going to get through this. We aren’t losing faith. The floods and our response to the floods are making faith stronger,” he added.

Knights of Columbus

Assisted by the Knights of Columbus supreme headquarters in New Haven Conn., Nebraska Knights State Deputy Lou Gasper put out a call to all 174 Knights of Columbus councils in the state of Nebraska, asking for support for flood relief. Councils responded with cash donations plus many man hours helping communities and individual families and businesses clean up after the flooding.

Related item: photos from North Bend clean-up (external site)

One of the first means of assistance that the Knights provided was to give a check to the family of James Wilke of Columbus. Wilke died while trying to rescue someone trapped by floodwaters. While trying to cross a bridge with his tractor, the bridge collapsed beneath him, throwing Wilke and his tractor into raging floodwaters below. His body was found downstream near his farm.

Wilke was one of at least three Nebraskans who died as a result of the flooding. His family has suffered a great deal, not only with the death of Jim but also because of property damage and loss of livestock.

The Knights wrote to Wilke’s wife and family:  “Jim embodied the Knights of Columbus principles of Charity in loving his neighbor as himself and Unity in working alongside his family and others in his church and community. “

In addition to monetary donations, Knights from across the state of Nebraska helped provide many man hours of assistance in direct cleanup efforts.

The Knights’ Supreme headquarters sent the Nebraska Knights of Columbus $30,000 to help with flood relief, in addition to meals for 3,000 families. They also donated 500 cases of water and 301 gift cards for $100 each. The Knights thus far, have provided assistance to many Nebraska communities including Wood River, Osmond and Verdigre.

Local efforts

Of the many communities across Nebraska affected by flooding, North Bend is one community hit hardest. For several days North Bend was under at least 2 to 3 feet of water and no one could come into or get out of town.

Dan Minarick, a member of nearby St. George Parish in Morse Bluff and a member of Knights Council 3736 in North Bend is coordinating flood relief efforts. As a city councilman he and other council members are responsible for coordinating many of the city and volunteer efforts to clean up the town of North Bend, which sits right on the Platte River along Highway 30.

“The flooding began Thursday night into Friday,” Minarick said. Because of increased volumes of water and ice jams, water from the Platte River had nowhere to go.

“The first day of the flood we focused on evacuation,” he said. “Much of North Bend was under several feet of water.”

Dubbed by some of North Bend’s citizens as the “commander-in-chief” Minarick coordinated the city’s efforts on streets, water and sewer and the protection of its citizens.

The waters rose so quickly that some residents had only 20 minutes to evacuate.

Minarick’s father Ted, who owns Bluff Gravel Company, said there was so much water that “we needed two rivers to handle all of the water that came from upstream.”

Father Dennis Hunt, pastor of St. George Parish in Morse Bluff — across the Platte River south from North Bend — helped pick up supplies including bottled water, protein drinks, diapers, and soup at Sam’s and Walmart on behalf of the Morse Bluff Fire Department.

“Almost all of North Bend has what looks like slime covering yards and roads,” Father Hunt said. Ted Minarick said the slime is silt from the river, and very difficult to remove.

As the floodwaters receded, volunteers from across the state converged on the town to help with cleanup. Dan Minarick is the direct local contact with FEMA, EMS, DOT, local sheriff’s offices and various other volunteer organizations.

“In addition to many individuals, we have had many religious organizations come to volunteer to clean up,” Minarick said. A member of the North Bend Knights of Columbus, Minarick was very grateful for the assistance of Knights of Columbus from across Nebraska.

Of the hundreds of volunteers, the Knights of Columbus were among the first to help. More than 40 Knights pitched in to help clean up March 22. The Knights also cooked and served a meal for 1,257 other volunteers and North Bend residents. They also handed out gift cards to help residents.

The volunteer service is important to residents, both in man power and in moral support. Grief counsellors have been brought in for members of North Bend’s fire department, who are doing a lot of the work. The members are helping others while they themselves, in some cases, have lost everything.

As coordinator of the flood relief efforts, Minarick has had very long days. He said that in one day, he fielded 160 phone calls and also met with Nebraska United States Senator Deb Fischer and First Congressional District Congressman Jeff Fortenberry.

Minarick said Congressman Fortenberry was complimentary of the organization and incredible work done by North Bend citizens.

Minarick said in the midst of disaster and suffering there are lessons to be had. First he said, “God is good.”

“The generosity of complete strangers is absolutely overwhelming,” he said. “People who have the least are giving the most,” he added.
Minarick gave two examples of people’s generosity.

“One day a semi-truck with a 53-foot trailer full of supplies came into town,” he explained. “The driver said that an anonymous donor from Houston, Texas paid to fill the semi-trailer with supplies like bottled water, diapers and food and gave the driver $2,000 and told him to drive straight through to North Bend.”

Minarik said he has no idea who the donor is.

Minarick also said that a man from North Dakota came into town and said that he wanted to help. When Minarick asked him where he was staying he responded, “I don’t know, I just felt compelled to get in the car and come down here to help.”

Minarick also said that if people believe youth are lazy, that is certainly not the case.

“The kids of our community have just poured out their heart in helping with cleanup efforts,” Minarick said. “I am so proud of them.”

Minarick said an 18-year-old young man he knows through a welding program called him one evening at 10:30 and asked, “what else can I do?” The young man had been working since 7 o’clock that morning.

Minarick has kept a sense of humor with all of the issues involved with flood relief.

Minarick said that when he was approached to join the City Council, his predecessor, who had served for seven years, said there wasn’t a great deal to do — decide where to put a small metal building and decide the schedule for the town’s annual “Old Settlers Days” event.

“Sure, join the City Council, you don’t have to make any crazy decisions,” he said.

Readers may donate to CSS Flood Relief at www.cssisus.org.

Information from the Catholic News Agency was used in this article.

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