DENVER (CNS) — Recovery efforts following heavy rain that dumped on northern Colorado in mid-September are expected to take years.
“Catholic Charities will be there to help in any we can,” pledged Larry Smith, president and CEO of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Denver. “We are here as early responders and will continue to respond as long as it takes.”
From Sept. 11 to Sept. 15, the rains created flooding and rivers that filled homes, tossed buildings, and swallowed infrastructure over an area of 20,000 square miles. The homes of more than 16,000 families have been damaged or destroyed.
Denver’s Catholic Charities’ headquarters — in conjunction with a national team from Catholic Charities USA in Alexandria, Va. — established three disaster relief centers. From there 11 truckloads-worth of food, water, cleaning supplies, blankets, hygiene products, medical supplies and gift cards were distributed to those in need.
Kim Burgo, senior director for disaster response operations with Catholic Charities USA, was invited by Smith to help with local efforts. Burgo, who has been involved in large-scale responses such as hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, described some unique challenges of the flooding on Colorado’s Front Range.
“It’s hard to compare,” she told the Denver Catholic Register, newspaper of the Denver Archdiocese. “Every disaster, no matter how big or how small, is a catastrophe to the people it affects.”
Challenges resulted not only from the heavy rain, but from the scope as well.
“Tens of thousands of families have been impacted, but not just in one area,” she said. “With Katrina and Sandy a ‘strip’ was affected. … This flooding has hit towns throughout Colorado.”
George Sullivan, director of individual and community preparedness and resilience for Red Cross in Colorado and Wyoming, agreed with the assessment.
Picture the area impacted like “a tree with millions of branches,” he suggested, rather than a square. The extensive space, compounded with limited access, makes responding more difficult.
“The disaster itself is widespread,” he continued. “In some cases, access to affected areas is hampered by flood water and damaged roads.”
Catholic Charities is what is called a Volunteer Organization Active in Disaster supporting local relief efforts with the Red Cross. Communities depend on the Catholic Church, and other organizations outside the government, to do the “hard work on the ground,” according to Sullivan.
“It takes local faith-based communities, schools and businesses to start providing the goods and services, the jobs and the tax revenue needed to help the community as a whole recover,” he said. “Recovery is a long, slow process that could last years. The focus is getting back to whatever new normal is.”
The recovery period may last from 18 months to five years, according to Smith, as roads, houses and businesses are rebuilt — some by families and organizations not covered by flood insurance. Many volunteers and donors are needed.
“The best thing people can do is make a donation,” Smith said. “Then, number two is prayerfully consider volunteering” as communities reopen in the weeks ahead.
“No donation is too small,” he added.
As parishes throughout the Denver Archdiocese reached out to help neighbors devastated by the Front Range flooding, several also were dealing with their own clean-up and repairs.
Insurance claims have been filed through the archdiocese for at least 27 properties, including churches, rectories, schools and a senior housing complex, according to Peter Cronan, director of risk management for the archdiocese.
They included structures in Aurora, Denver, Fort Collins, Lakewood, Littleton, Louisville, Longmont, Loveland, Weldona, Thornton, Broomfield and Boulder.
During a Sept. 16 visit to Boulder County, the worst of the 17 counties hit, Denver Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila checked on the four Catholic parishes in Boulder, including the St. Thomas Aquinas Center, which serves the University of Colorado.
“All four of them had damage,” he said. “The worst was at St Thomas Aquinas. The student center had more than 200,000 gallons of water in it; it was being pumped out and had been continuously for the last two or three days.”
Assessing the damage to the church, pastoral center and student center was expected to take eight to 10 weeks.
“We’re looking on the bright side and building anticipation for our new student center,” said Phil Perez, parish business and facilities manager. “We’re trying to keep it positive; Father Peter (Mussett, pastor) and all of us believe our sufferings there are opportunities for holiness.”
Archbishop Aquila agreed Boulderites were in good spirits.
“Certainly there’s sadness, especially with people who had lost their homes,” he told the Denver Catholic Register. “(Though) it was good to see the strength of the people, their resilience; to listen to their stories and see the depth of their faith and their willingness to exercise the virtue of charity.”
Editor’s Note: Information related to donating and volunteering is on the website www.ccdenver.org.
Filby is a reporter at the Denver Catholic Register, newspaper of the Denver Archdiocese.