In another not-so-great public relations moment for the Catholic Church, a story has been circulating…
As dams fail in Michigan, local parishes doing what they can to assist flood victims
About a month ago, Father Andy Booms was diagnosed with COVID-19. He was barely out of quarantine when record rainfall in central Michigan this week collapsed two dams, forcing thousands of his parishioners to evacuate their homes amid devastating flooding.
“The stories of our staff and their loss are a lot to process,” Father Booms told Our Sunday Visitor after the catastrophic dam failures sent floodwaters gushing into Midland and the communities along the Tittabawassee River in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula.
Father Booms, the pastor of St. Brigid of Kildare Church in Midland, said most of the 10,000 Midland residents who evacuated the city lived in his parish boundaries. Another 1,000 people also fled from outlying areas for which St. Brigid is their territorial parish.
“There’s just no way of knowing how they’re all doing at this point. We’re just absolutely cut off from them,” said Father Booms, who lost electricity for most of Wednesday before utility crews managed to restore power later that night.
‘A lot of people who are hurting’
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer described the flooding as a “500-year event” and declared a state of emergency for Midland County. The rain breached the Edenville and Sanford dams, swelling the river to a record depth of more than 35 feet and submerging Midland’s streets, homes and businesses.
“At present, we are without power, and we are not able to get through the area,” Father Dan Fox, pastor of Our Lady of Grace Church in Edenville, told Our Sunday Visitor in an email late Wednesday. Father Fox said the basements in his parish and rectory had some flooding.
“Many folks have been forced to evacuate,” Father Fox wrote. “I will know more when power is restored. I don’t know when that will be.”
The National Weather Service on Wednesday urged anyone near the Tittabawassee River to seek higher ground following the breaches at the Edenville Dam, which is about 140 miles north of Detroit, and the Sanford Dam, about 7 miles downriver.
Though no fatalities or significant injuries were reported as of Thursday, local and national news reports indicated that Midland, a city of 42,000 people, was the hardest-hit community. City officials said sewer backups were still possible and urged residents not to return to their homes yet.
“We have a lot of people who are hurting,” said Father Robert Howe, the pastor of Blessed Sacrament Church in Midland.
Father Howe, whose parish is located on higher ground in the city’s eastern end, told Our Sunday Visitor that the flood damage was the worst he had ever seen. Some of his parish staff evacuated the city and had their homes damaged in the floods.
“There are rescue workers, National Guard and (workers) from the city trying to get people back in their homes as quickly as possible,” said Father Howe, who added that the community has rallied around its residents, setting up emergency shelters in area schools and collecting food, clothing, toiletries and other items.
Father Howe said Blessed Sacrament Church on Wednesday disseminated information on social media encouraging anyone needing shelter and basic supplies to contact the parish for assistance.
“As of right now, we haven’t received a lot of calls looking for that help,” Father Howe said. “We’ve had our parishioners helping out in those situations, volunteering and trying to get things to people. There has been a lot of generosity from people helping out and pouring in money to local agencies.”
‘Christ is with them’
The pair of dam collapses hit an already beleaguered community that was under one of the nation’s most stringent stay-at-home orders to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Michigan has been hit hard by the pandemic, with more than 52,000 cases and 5,000 reported deaths.
Father Booms, the pastor of St. Brigid of Kildare Church in Midland, said he tested positive for the coronavirus about five weeks ago shortly after he began experiencing symptoms on Easter Friday.
“I’m still not back to 100 percent,” said Father Booms, who was in quarantine for almost a month because his condition was slow to improve. Though adding that he never felt like he was “suffering that much,” Father Booms said the respiratory disease impaired his oxygen levels.
“I had been preparing to run a half-marathon this weekend. I can’t even run a mile right now,” Father Booms said.
The flooding did not damage St. Brigid of Kildare Church, which is on higher ground, but Father Booms said it will likely delay the return of public Masses, which, like everywhere else, were suspended in March to contain the coronavirus. Father Booms said the parish was set to celebrate public Masses on Memorial Day weekend.
“At the present moment, the city has significant amounts of road closures. That definitely impacts the ability of people to participate in public Masses,” said Father Booms, who added that he will do what he can to help his parishioners worship safely at church as soon as possible.
Said Father Booms, “Now more than ever, our people need to know Christ is with them as they clean up and recover from this.”
Brian Fraga is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.