By now you’ve seen either with your own two eyes or via photographs the havoc being spread by water coming out of the banks of rivers and water standing because there’s simply no place for it to go. A much snowier winter than in recent years, accompanied by freezing temperatures, froze the ground up to two feet down from the surface. The rain that followed had nowhere to sink into, so it either sat and accumulated or ran into streams and rivers.
The photo below is perhaps the best illustration. It’s a satellite image courtesy of NASA, shared by the Nebraska State Patrol. The image on the left shows the “normal” amount of water in the Elkhorn, Platte and Missouri rivers as they run around the Omaha metro area. The photo on the right was taken Saturday, March 16, 2019.
This isn’t my first flood. I grew up along the Missouri River in Leavenworth, Kansas. But this is the most damaging flood I’ve seen since my days of serving as editor of a newspaper in the desert.
That’s right. I said desert.
In 2005, we had fluke snowstorms that filled reservoirs north of St. George, Utah. Just a few weeks later, we had multiple days of rain. What we would call creeks in the Midwest swelled to Mississippi River-like sizes and ran so fast and furious that they chewed the banks from underneath homes that weren’t even in a floodplain. In all, more than 30 homes crashed to the river below and wound up running all the way to Lake Mead, just outside Las Vegas.
I tell that story not to compare devastation but to set up an explanation of just how important our denomination is when it comes to this kind of disaster response. Government agencies can’t do it all. And they certainly can’t witness for Christ to hurting people at such a stressful time in their lives.
In times like this, I think of James 2:14-17. “My brothers and sisters, what good is it if people say they have faith but do nothing to show it? Claiming to have faith can’t save anyone, can it? Imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough food to eat. What if one of you said, ‘Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal!’? What good is it if you don’t actually give them what their body needs? In the same way, faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity.” In other words, this is a time to show our faith by living the words we claim to hold so dear.
In secular language: Let’s walk the talk.
Back in southwest Utah, in the heart of the home base for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it was the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) that was on the ground first with supplies, pastoral care and relief efforts. Our church — Shepherd of the Hills UMC — was UMCOR’s base for quite a while amid that flooding event. It’s where people could pick up flood buckets to start the cleanup process, and it’s where they could start filling out the paperwork for FEMA and other assistance.
There was a threat for a while that two bridges might fail, which would have isolated thousands of people from basic necessities. While it never came to that, the church was prepared to serve as a shelter and storehouse for food and water.
Many months later — when the new channels the rivers had dug has started to settle and when people were finally starting to rebuild their lives — The United Methodist Church was still there until the last people were cared for and had received the assistance they needed to start over.
UMCOR and the Rocky Mountain Conference were far from the only volunteers on site. But for weeks we helped shovel mud and muck from farmers’ feed troughs and cleaned out homes that had filled with water. Each time we were asked which stake or ward we were from — congregations of Mormon churches — we could proudly say we were from Shepherd of the Hills United Methodist Church.
Talk about wearing a badge of honor with that cross and flame!
In those days, we never know how many people we touched by showing love and kindness. And the Disaster Response team, led by the Rev. Hollie Tapley, in the Great Plains Conference is doing the same right now in Nebraska. As of writing this blog, 65 of Nebraska’s 93 counties have declared some form of emergency. Several towns are temporary islands because roads have been swallowed by water — in some cases the concrete has been washed away, meaning it will take time to rebuild infrastructure.
I think I learned five things from that flood in 2005 that will do some good to share now:
Patience is key — I know it’s hard to sit back and wait while people are hurting, especially on this scale. But emergency crews need time to do their work first. Many of my friends in Utah were public officials and first responders. These people need time to do their work free of well-intentioned people being in the way. So don’t self-deploy. Instead, pay attention to a page we’ve set up that will steer willing volunteers to areas where it is safe to do the work and where people are ready to accept your help. This will help volunteers get where they are needed with instructions of what they will be doing to help.
Follow instructions — Wasted effort hurts the cause. For example, we now know we will need cleaning kits (also known as flood buckets) and hygiene kits. It’s important that we assemble the items requested for those kits in the proper containers. And please plan to deliver them only to district offices in Nebraska. This gets the items needed close to the people. Again, we’ll post needs to that special web page as they arise. Once the water recedes, resources are going to be stretched extremely thin. The more you can help by getting what is needed where it is needed, the better. The church in Utah was more than 300 miles away from the closest United Methodist Church in the Rocky Mountain Conference, and we had folks I interacted with from as far away as Wyoming who brought supplies. Talk about dedication! There is also the safety angle. To my knowledge, only two people were hurt during disaster response efforts in Utah. One was a person using some equipment they had never used before and had been told not to touch. The other was a person who went somewhere he had been told was not safe and was hurt when some rocks gave way. Luckily, neither was seriously hurt, but neither had to be hurt at all.
Show the love of Christ — Most of us are lucky to never have been impacted by a flood. I know I’ve never had to experience such a tragedy to my own home. So this is a time to empathize, to listen, to pray with and for people and to offer a hug when appropriate. From my experience, people will ask why God did this to them and if they are being punished. It’s our opportunity to simply admit we don’t know why these things happen but that God loves them and that we love them. Let them know we will do what we can to help them pick up their lives and recover. In short, love them like a neighbor and allow the Holy Spirit room to do its work.
Take care of yourself — You can’t help if you are injured or if you are sick. So if you choose to volunteer your time, please take care of yourself. Don’t do more than you think your body can handle. Remember to stay hydrated. Take time to stay nourished. And get some rest. A city councilwoman in St. George in 2005 made it her mission to make sure volunteers took care of themselves. I think she played a pretty important role in helping get as much work done as we did because she made sure the volunteers stayed in tip-top shape.
Money is better — I know. We want to help out by providing tangible goods. It gives us a sense of helping by going to a store and purchasing goods. The problem is, we often don’t know what goods we actually need until our early response teams are on the ground to provide real assessments of each given situation. One thing the LDS Church did that impressed me in the aftermath of that Utah flood was the way it raised money and got it into the hands of people who needed it to cover basic needs after losing their homes. Nebraska alone this time could have dozens of very different scenarios regarding needs. So financial resources to purchase what is needed is the best way to help, especially in these early days of response. Bishop Ruben Saenz Jr. issued a plea via the video below to take up a special offering for the conference’s disaster response fund. Money given to this fund gets into the hands of our disaster response team and people in need much quicker than if the money goes first to UMCOR and is then filtered back to the annual conference. This Sunday is dedicated as a special offering Sunday for UMCOR. At the risk of stepping a bit out of bounds, I am going to urge you — personally, not as a conference staff member — to donate to the conference’s disaster response this time around. It’s quite clear already that the need in Nebraska will be mighty. And, let’s not forget, it’s only March. How many other floods, tornadoes and other possible calamities will we face across Kansas and Nebraska this year? Those funds can help now and in the future. Donate to the conference’s fund by clicking this link.
I’m happy to report that St. George recovered from the flood. It took years — really. And Nebraska is going to be no different. From the three years living in Nebraska while my wife served in Lincoln, I learned that Nebraskans are resilient. They help one another. And they need our help now.
We’ve seen nothing but division in the news of late regarding The United Methodist Church in our debate over human sexuality. This disaster response effort is a real opportunity to show the world — and maybe each other — what we can do together for the good of the neighbors our Savior called us to love.
Todd Seifert is communications director for the Great Plains Conference of the United Methodist Church. He can be reached via phone at 785-414-4224, or via email at email@example.com. Opinions expressed are the author's alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Great Plains Annual Conference or the United Methodist Church. Follow him on Twitter, @ToddSeifert.