Friday, June 20, 2008

Iowa parishes struggle to recover from devastating floods; Last month it was tornadoes

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DUBUQUE, Iowa (CatholicNewsService) -- Iowa officials were calling the state's catastrophic flooding "the tsunami of the plains," as it wreaked havoc on citizens, business owners and Catholic parish property statewide.

Record flooding from nine of Iowa's rivers has covered millions of acres of farmland and crippled numerous towns and cities in its path.

While the water had begun to recede, it was only the beginning of a long recovery process, federal and state authorities confirmed.

The destructive flooding also has caused devastation to many Catholic parish properties and the homes and businesses of parishioners, said Dubuque Archbishop Jerome G. Hanus.

In the Archdiocese of Dubuque -- which covers 30 counties in the northeast quadrant of Iowa -- Cedar Rapids experienced the worst flooding.

In Iowa's second largest city, Cedar Rapids, with a population of more than 120,000, a 9.2-square-mile area was under several feet of water. This covered 1,300 city blocks and necessitated the evacuation of 24,000 people, city officials said.

St. Patrick Church and parish buildings in the heart of downtown Cedar Rapids were swamped and water came within a foot of the roof of the four-year-old parish center, which houses parish and regional diocesan offices.

"We did some sandbagging because city officials told us we might expect a Cedar River crest of 21 to 24 feet, which might have come up to the parking lot," said Jeff Henderson, archdiocesan superintendent of schools, whose regional office was in the building. "But when we heard the crest was 31.1 feet, we knew everything inside would be gone. This was beyond anyone's wildest imagination."

The scene of people feverishly sandbagging, others evacuating their homes and packing their cars and pickups to capacity -- as well as the bumper-to-bumper traffic as people tried to escape the oncoming waters -- was surreal, Henderson told The Witness, newspaper of the archdiocese.

"I will never forget this," he said. "It felt like we were in a Third-World country."

As of June 17 Henderson reported that nine Cedar Rapids teachers and staff members from Catholic schools have lost their homes, and there may be more.

Safety was a major concern as city, state and national officials said they were conducting extensive inspections before people could return to homes or businesses. For many, the cleanup would not begin for at least two weeks, officials said.

In another part of Cedar Rapids, St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church and the neighborhood surrounding it also were inundated with high water. This parish is in the heart of an area known as Czech Village, where the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library -- built in 1995 -- is located. The building received extensive damage.

"The pastors and parish staffs are under extreme stress," said Msgr. Russell Bleich, vicar for the Cedar Rapids region whose office was also in the St. Patrick Parish center. "But they are doing their best to respond to the human needs of the people."

This is an older area of the city where many of the homes may be a total loss and the residents didn't have flood insurance, he said.

In mid-June Msgr. Bleich attended an interfaith meeting of Cedar Rapids church representatives whose congregations were affected by the flood and said the task is so great the group found it difficult to chart a plan.

"It's hard to know where to begin," he said. "First of all, we need prayers to help people get through this. We also need volunteers to attend to the human needs of those displaced and eventually we will need financial assistance."

Joe Mahony of Catholic Charities USA's Disaster Response Office in Alexandria, Va., traveled to Dubuque's Archdiocesan Pastoral Center in mid-June to help organize volunteer disaster recovery.

Mahony, along with Joe Featherston, associate director of Dubuque Catholic Charities, participated in a statewide conference call to assess the needs not only of the Dubuque Archdiocese, but also the Des Moines and Davenport dioceses where major flooding also has occurred.

Some churches and schools in the Des Moines Diocese had minor flood cleanup to do, but appeared to have escaped major damage as a result of recent severe weather.

The extent to which parishioners suffered damage as the result of storms and flooding, however, was still being evaluated June 17.

Des Moines Bishop Richard E. Pates asked all priests to include special prayers at Masses the weekend of June 14-15 for the victims of severe weather, particularly for those who lost their lives in the tornado at the Little Sioux Scout Camp, their families and the whole Scouting community. [What a welcome for Bishop Pates, formerly the Auxiliary Bishop of St Paul and Minneapolis until last month.]

"For all the victims of the flooding who have been forced from their homes and businesses, we pray for their safety and quick return home," he said. "We are grateful to the many volunteers, including youth groups from various parishes in the diocese, who have offered their time to assist with sandbagging and other important relief efforts to help keep people safe and protect property."

Though the officials in the Davenport Diocese reported little flood damage to parish and administrative buildings, they said members of their church communities opened their buildings to those displaced by rising waters and served up meals to the needy.

Shelters were full and parishioners were being asked to offer support at the facilities, said Father Ken Kuntz, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Iowa City.

Father Jeff Belger, parochial vicar at St. Mary's, helped with sandbagging efforts and gathered Iowa City university students associated with the Newman Catholic Student Center to help in the labors.

"This experience can make us bitter or better," Father Kuntz told The Catholic Messenger, Davenport's diocesan newspaper. "I think this will bring out the better."

Mahony urged collaboration to use city, state and national resources for the recovery effort and also offered the services of Catholic Charities USA.

Archbishop Hanus has asked for an archdiocesan collection to be taken up in all parishes for the victims of tornado and flood damage. A major tornado recently destroyed 400 homes in the town of Parkersburg, also in the Dubuque Archdiocese. Funds will be distributed through Catholic Charities.


And just last month, tornadoes killed 7 in Iowa, destroying the town of Parkersburg, and a week ago,
four boy scouts were killed when their camp was struck by another tornado.

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