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Volunteers at Archbishop Bergan Catholic School in Fremont prepare burritos March 18 for distribution to flood victims there. FATHER DAMIEN WEE

Faith and generosity sustain flood victims

For Naoma Borgmann, the first sign of trouble was the look on her husband’s face.

Although wind gusts of 60 mph were howling and 4- to 5-foot waves were crashing on the banks of the Missouri River near their home March 13, it was the sight of the water on the ground that shocked.

“He said, ‘Naoma, I don’t know how to tell you this, but we are surrounded by water,’” she said.

• HOW TO HELP LOCAL FLOOD VICTIMS: To donate, go to www.ccomaha.org/how-to-help/donate.html and select “Flood Relief” in the drop-down menu labeled “Please apply my contribution to:”.

So, she and her husband, Hubert, witnessing the sudden rise of floodwaters, quickly took refuge in the upper level of their home between Niobrara and Verdel in northeastern Nebraska. There they prayed and waited for help.

Strong faith and generous spirits are now helping the Borgmanns and other Catholics across the Omaha archdiocese overcome and recover from this month’s historic flooding throughout eastern Nebraska. 

Conditions in mid-March were ideal for significant floods. With the ground still frozen and rivers choked with ice, heavy rains and melting snow swelled creeks and rivers, causing major flooding along the Loup, Elkhorn, Platte, Niobrara and Missouri rivers.

Flooding affected more than two-thirds of Nebraska’s counties, including many within the archdiocese, destroying or damaging homes, businesses, roads and bridges, crippling water and sewage systems and killing livestock.

The floods also killed at least three people, and stranded thousands of others.

SUSTAINED BY FAITH

“We believe in prayer and we have a deep faith,” Borgmann said. So while awaiting rescue they prayed the Lord’s Prayer and the rosary and gazed upon a crucifix she placed on the table, which helped sustain them.

“As we were leaving, I looked at that cross, and there was my strength,” she said.

Members of St. William Parish in Niobrara, the Borgmanns are thankful for the local farmer and his father who rescued them and the generosity of friends who helped them by providing a rent-free, temporary home in Creighton, about 37 miles to the south, where their floral and home decor business is located. 

This was not the first time the Borgmanns have faced tragedy. Naoma Borgmann also endured the death of a teenage daughter in an automobile accident 25 years ago, and the couple saw their previous home destroyed in the 2011 flood.

“You do question why this is happening again,” Borgmann said, “but you have to look at what it could have been. We’re here, we got out together and we’re still together. You look at what you have and not what you’ve lost.”

LIKE A WAR ZONE

After the initial flooding on March 13, the next day, failure of the upstream Spencer Dam on the Niobrara River brought a destructive, 11-foot wave of water and huge slabs of ice into the small town of Niobrara, washing away or damaging many commercial buildings. The Mormon Bridge across the Niobrara River also was washed out, cutting off one route into town. 

“Niobrara is like a war zone, said Father Kizito Okhuoya, pastor of St. William Parish and St. Wenceslaus Parish in Verdigre, a town south of Niobrara that also sustained major damage.

But people are working hard to get things back to normal, he said.

“There’s been an outpouring of generosity and kindness from neighboring towns,” Father Okhuoya said, “and the community is coming together.”

“We held an ecumenical prayer service on Friday (March 15) to bring people together and speak a message of hope and faith … knowing that even now, God walks with us through the waters, and reassuring people of God’s love and presence.”

And Sunday, March 17, was a cleanup day in Niobrara, he said, with people from Bloomfield, Royal, O’Neill and Creighton arriving to help. “It was great to see the beauty and kindness of humanity,” Father Okhuoya said.

Both churches are located on high ground, so they did not sustain damage and were able to hold Sunday Masses, he said.

And the parishes are raising money for relief efforts.

“This is the time we need to turn to God in prayer,” Father Okhuoya said, “and although people are hurting, they are hopeful and are focusing on the big picture.”

“They have faith that we’re going to bounce back as a town,” he said. “It could be worse, so people are thanking God but are grieving their losses and cleaning up. Their spirit is good overall, so I’m thankful to God for that.”

PEOPLE COMING TOGETHER

Towns such as Valley (located between the Elkhorn and Platte rivers northwest of Omaha) and North Bend (near the Platte River west of Fremont) faced their own challenges.

With much of Valley flooded on March 16, Father Lloyd Gnirk, pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, was stranded in his home and unable to hold weekend Masses. Fortunately, the church sustained no damage, he said.

As flood waters recede, Father Gnirk and his parishioners are joining other churches in the community to help with relief efforts, including providing meals for volunteers working on the cleanup, he said.

“What the needs are and how we can help each other will be further revealed once we understand the extent of damage,” Father Gnirk said.

“But there’s a confidence that whatever happens, God provides,” he said. “It offers that firm foundation of faith.”

Francis and Carol Emanuel, whose farm near North Bend was unaffected, have been lending a hand to help people displaced by the flooding that inundated the town March 14.

In addition to their five children who still live with them, the Emanuels opened their home to relatives and another family for a total of 16 people and six dogs.

“A situation like this certainly brings people together,” Carol Emanuel said. “It’s one of those times when you’re forced to slow down and enjoy the people around you.”

She and her husband, members of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in North Bend, both grew up in very strong, Catholic families, she said.

“We grew up knowing that when somebody is in need you step up, so there was really no thought put into it at all. If somebody needs a place to stay, you say, ‘Come on out, we have room.’”

SPECIAL COLLECTIONS

The archdiocese also is extending its hand to help parishioners and communities affected by flooding.

Archbishop George J. Lucas asked parishes to conduct special collections for relief efforts during weekend Masses March 23 and 24. More than $130,000 was raised. Not included is money collected by some parishes and distributed directly to flood victims.

Money donated will address immediate needs such as water, food, shelter and supplies, plus longer-term needs for tools and building materials.

And the archbishop visited flood damaged areas of Fremont March 22 where he joined with Father Walter Nolte, pastor of St. Patrick Parish, along with parishioners and people associated with Archbishop Bergan Catholic School to deliver food to flood victims.

In addition to archdiocesan parishes that are mounting relief efforts to help those affected by the floods in their areas, Catholic Charities Omaha is partnering with Catholic Charities USA and the Knights of Columbus to collect and distribute food and supplies to flood victims in and around the archdiocese. 

“Monetary donations will allow us to quickly address the variety of long-term recovery needs of disaster survivors that follow a catastrophe of this magnitude,” said Kathleen Berg, vice president of community relations and general counsel for Catholic Charities Omaha.

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