Osawatomie flood brings out the best in many
by Joe Bollig
firstname.lastname@example.orgMaggie McKain is a church organist at St. Philip Neri Parish in Osawatomie.
But she wasn’t playing a Mass on Sunday, July 8.
Instead, she and her family, reinforced by friends, were trying to dig out of the slimy, putrid mess left by the July 1 flood that topped the dike and devastated one-third of the city, and caused damage in 17 southeast Kansas counties.
The McKains lost almost everything. Some things couldn’t be replaced, like her husband’s prized Barry Bonds rookie card and her grandmother’s antique Victrola. What they salvaged filled a small, covered trailer. Since they were not considered to be in the flood plain, they did not have flood insurance — a common situation in Osawatomie.
Terry Grant, a friend and fellow parishioner, stopped by to express her sympathy . . . and to hand over a check. McKain put her hand over her mouth and began to cry, then she and Grant embraced.
“What helps the most is when your family and friends, and even volunteers, come from everywhere to help you get organized and help you rebuild,” she later said.
Right now, McKain’s prayers are directed toward asking God for direction and patience. And she’s thanking God for her family, her parish and her community.
Diaper dilemma and other challenges
The floodwaters were still rising when Father Jerry Arano-Ponce, pastor of St. Philip Neri Parish, began calling parishioners and members of his local Knights of Columbus, Council No. 10786.
Father Arano-Ponce, who is also pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Mound City and Our Lady of Lourdes in La Cygne, was in Mound City at the time of the flood. He was only able to return for one hour on July 1 to retrieve some clothing, his laptop computer, and other essentials.
But when he returned to town on July 3, he celebrated Mass and then headed immediately to the emergency shelter to see what he could do to help. There, they handed him a shopping list.
It wasn’t until he was standing in the Paola Wal-Mart that he realized he had a problem.
“When I went to buy the diapers, I was kind of shocked,” he said. “I didn’t know that diapers came in different sizes. I had never changed a diaper on a baby in my life. It was a whole new world. I didn’t know what to get. I had to call a customer representative and ask for help.”
Then, as he was going over his homily just before Mass on July 7, he got another request from the emergency shelter.
“Father, you said that we could call you any time we needed something,” the volunteer said. “We need 50 pounds of ground beef.”
“When do you need it?” the priest asked.
“This afternoon — or, at the latest, tomorrow morning by 8 a.m.” was the reply.
This time, Father Arano-Ponce knew where to turn. He called Rick and Sarah Weber, who own the Butcher’s Block in Mound City. They gladly made the donation, and that evening the pastor drove to Mound City to pick it up.
Armies of compassion mobilize
Help for the flood victims came from all points on the compass.
Al and Kelly Samuelson, members of the Church of the Nativity in Leawood, where Father Arano-Ponce formerly served as associate pastor, filled their garage with donated toys, clothing and furniture, and delivered them to Osawatomie.
Other Nativity parishioners baked cookies for shelter evacuees, and three Leawood parishes — Nativity, Curé of Ars, and St. Michael the Archangel — collaborated on a canned food drive.
Second collections were held at a number of parishes, including Queen of the Holy Rosary in Overland Park and Immaculate Conception in Louisburg. At Queen of the Holy Rosary Parish in Wea, parishioners donated gift cards and Catholic Charities donated vouchers for items at TurnStyles thrift store in Overland Park.
The flood affected approximately 15 parish families, said Grand Knight Joe Herman of Osawatomie Council No. 10786. Eight of those are Knights’ families, including Herman’s own daughter and her family.
The council provided funds to each Knight’s family and set up a fund to collect and distribute additional funds. The Knights have also been helping man telephones, unload and sort donations, and serve food at the emergency shelter.
State officials of the Knights of Columbus also plan to help families that aren’t affiliated with the Knights or with the Catholic Church.
“What we’re doing right now is contacting the local councils in eastern Kansas, the affected areas, to see how many homes are destroyed or heavily damaged, and then we’ll set up a voucher program,” said Bill Baalmann, president of the Kansas Knights of Columbus Charities Aid Foundation.
He estimated that the foundation would distribute approximately $45,000, the same amount that was distributed for the Greensburg tornado relief.
Of course, St. Philip Neri Parish has been the first to come to the aid its own parishioners.
“When some of the flood victims have come here for their check, to those who have lost everything, I give a Bible, as a reminder of how powerful the word of God is,” said Father Arano-Ponce, “and a Scripture guide of some passages where they can find some consolation.”
The parish has been a great clearing-house of information, thanks to its parish phone tree. It has been used for everything from coordinating volunteers to finding rental property. Several parishioners have worked at the emergency shelter at Trojan Elementary School.
“I’ll tell you, the outpouring of help from just the parish is outstanding,” said Herman. “We took up a special collection [on July 7 and 8], and the total was more than $1,000. The amount of clothes and furniture just from our parish is [huge]. A disaster brings out the best in most people.”
Tara Herl, a member of St. Philip Neri Parish and the daughter of an Osawatomie Knight, passed on her own parish relief check to a 20-year-old single mother with two young children, said Herman. The small family needed it more, Herl said.
God’s presence in the flood
Most people had adequate time to get themselves out safely, but only a few minutes to grab a few clothes and treasured mementos. It was impossible to save the accumulated contents of whole households.
Kim and Rick Kirk lived about a mile east of Osawatomie on a 15-acre farm, right at the confluence of the Marais des Cygnes and Pottawatomie rivers. The rivers have flooded before, but their house was above the 100-year flood level, so they felt safe. Their foundation was five-feet high.
When the water started rising, said the Kirks, they moved their horses to a neighbor’s dairy farm. But when the water reached the foundation of the house, they knew they were in trouble.
The couple evacuated. When they later returned to check out the house, at least a quarter mile of water held them back.
“I just can’t tell you the heart-wrenching, heartbreaking feeling just looking down there, seeing the house and knowing that Grandma’s antiques were home, and praying the rest of the week that no big trees would come through and knock the house off the foundation,” said Kim Kirk.
Although grieving their losses, the Kirks are grateful for all the support that they’ve gotten from friends and neighbors.
“I’ve grown up Catholic, and my whole family is Catholic,” said Kim. “You always know God is going to take care of you. Rick has had to miss work, and he doesn’t get paid when he misses, and July is when all the [vehicle] taxes and tags come due.”
But somehow, she trusted, it will all work out. And it did.
“Between what the church gave and what a friend gave, that covered the taxes and tags,” said Kim. “You know that God is looking out for you. I didn’t know where it was going to come from this month.”
That wasn’t all that seemed like a sign to Kim: Despite two feet of water swirling through the house, her grandmother’s Bible stayed high and dry on a table.
Others, too, felt that God made his presence known in many ways, especially through other people.
A young man went to the assistance of a former neighbor, an elderly lady who recently lost her husband. Others offered their garages for storage, or opened their homes to displaced families. An in-the-trenches ecumenism blossomed, as people crossed denominational lines to help.
One elderly lady who had been evacuated asked that someone retrieve a treasured crucifix from her apartment. When the volunteers arrived, they found 11 hanging on the walls — so they rescued them all.
One St. Philip Neri parishioner has a son serving in Iraq. He called his mom to tell her that his unit had taken up a collection to send to Osawatomie.
At the shelter, a little boy asked a police officer if he would save his bicycle. When it proved impossible, two donors stepped forward with two little bicycles for young flood evacuees.
Part of one Body
While the floodwaters were still high, Father Arano-Ponce received several telephone calls from Msgr. Thomas Tank, offering assistance and monitoring the situation.
On July 8, Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann traveled to Osawatomie to offer both spiritual and temporal support. He met and consoled displaced parishioners before and after the Mass.
“[St. Paul] reminds us,” said the archbishop in his homily, “that when one part of the body hurts, the whole body hurts. The whole Catholic community of northeastern Kansas hurts because of the suffering of members of this community of St. Philip. . . . I hope that the archdiocese will be able to assist in a meaningful way in the recovery efforts in this community.”
After Mass, Archbishop Naumann met with parishioner and Osawatomie city manager Bret Glendening, who briefed him on city flood relief efforts and what additional help was needed.
“It was gratifying to hear how St. Philip’s parishioners have responded and have helped take a leadership role in the community relief efforts,” the archbishop said later, “and also how other Catholics from the archdiocese have responded to the needs of the people in Osawatomie — those who have volunteered and sent donations.”
The archdiocese will continue to monitor the recovery there to see what sort of short- and long-term needs remain after interventions by the various federal, state, and city entities. In the meantime, the archbishop recommended that individuals who want to help contact the Knights of Columbus or St. Philip Neri Parish.