5/1/2019by Joseph Pappalardo
Knights jumped into action in response to unprecedented flooding in the Cornhusker state
Traffic was light on Highway 77 as John Gibney cruised through Fremont, Neb. There was still a risk, however, that his boat would hit one of the many obstacles hidden by floodwaters, which had turned the road into a lake; then, the firefighters he was ferrying would have needed rescuing themselves.
“It was almost like an inland hurricane here,” recalled Gibney, a member of Philip Sheridan Council 1497 in Fremont, about 40 miles northwest of Omaha. “The further west you got, they were getting a snowstorm like crazy, and over here, we were getting rain.”
The snow and rain inundated the Missouri River Valley, swelling Nebraska’s rivers. Beginning March 14, dikes broke as waterways rerouted themselves, while roads, bridges and even houses vanished beneath the rising floodwaters. Within a couple of days, the city of Fremont, population 26,500, was completely surrounded by water. Numerous other communities in Nebraska and nearby states, including Iowa, Missouri and Kansas, were also flooded, with the damage estimated in the billions.
In the aftermath, many Knights, including Gibney and Anthony McKinley of Council 1497, volunteered wherever help was needed. While Gibney assisted first responders with his boat, McKinley was hard at work on land, believing his own home to be underwater. Other Nebraska Knights, meanwhile, were busy giving away tens of thousands of dollars in emergency supplies and aid. Knights throughout the region hosted fish fries and other community events to benefit those affected.
“The donations from the Knights of Columbus have been a tremendous part of a national outpouring to help Nebraska,” affirmed Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, a member of St. Margaret Mary Council 11800 in Omaha.
THE IDES OF MARCH
In 17 years, water had never breached John Gibney’s home in Fremont, where he lives with his wife, Stacy, and their young son. That was about to change.
“The water started to rise, the ice started to break up, and the rivers started swelling in our area. It was quite epic,” recalled Gibney, 42.
On March 15, after using sump pumps to save his furnace and appliances from the rising water in his basement, and then helping his neighbors do the same, Gibney called the local airboat association. He learned that local firefighters needed boats to rescue a group of 20 people stranded at Dove’s Cove, a lakefront neighborhood, after floodwaters swallowed up the highways.
Gibney, a city utility worker, hopped in his 20-foot fishing barge and transported the firefighters to those in need.
“Their homes were devastated,” he said. “We had to take one girl off the roof.”
It was the first of dozens of boat trips Gibney made over the next several days, evacuating residents, transporting first responders and retrieving medications for displaced flood victims. When the authorities needed a boat, whether on the highway or in a waterlogged neighborhood, Gibney was their man.
A fellow member of Council 1497, Anthony McKinley, 32, was also pitching in to help wherever he was needed — giving out food and water to first responders, filling sandbags together with other volunteers, and unloading trucks of aid supplies.
On March 14, he had told his wife, Theresa, “You may want to pack a bag.” The next morning, she and their 1-yearold daughter, Abigail, were safe in Omaha, while McKinley stopped by a church to pray and then went to his job as a grain inspector. He didn’t stay long, excusing himself to check on the rising floodwaters. By the time he got home, a mandatory evacuation had been issued. Coworkers helped remove his family’s belongings, and they finished shortly before a dike broke not far from McKinley’s house — which for the next several days he believed was claimed by floodwater.
“As far as I knew, my house was gone, and I just wanted to help save the community, save what houses we could,” he said. “I didn’t want anybody else to go through what I had already gone through.”
For McKinley, the most difficult part was not being able to see his family. They were finally reunited March 19, when Highway 36 opened and Fremont ceased to be an island.
ONE DAY AT A TIME
The McKinleys’ home was largely spared by the floodwaters, which disabled their hot water and heat but never reached the first floor. Others were not so fortunate. Gov. Ricketts estimated that more than 2,000 homes and 340 businesses were damaged or destroyed by flooding in Nebraska, where most counties declared a state of emergency.
In response, Knights have been working statewide to help victims. Forty-two Nebraska councils were directly affected by the flooding, while Knights throughout the state mobilized to raise money and collect supplies.
Supreme Director Mike Conrad, State Deputy Lou Gasper and Immediate Past State Deputy Tony Hergott coordinated the efforts.
“The people in Nebraska have been so good and so generous to us,” Conrad said of the donations that councils have received. “They recognize the Knights of Columbus as an organization they can trust.”
K of C leaders distributed funds to people in need, including the four families who lost a loved one as a result of the disaster. They also handed out rosaries and prayed with flood victims.
Many councils, including Council 1497 in Fremont, hosted fish fries and cookouts to bring people together and benefit those most affected. Among those pitching in were Gibney and McKinley, whose previous efforts exemplified the resolute spirit of the community.
Neither McKinley nor Gibney, though, has been a member of the Knights for very long.
In fact, McKinley hasn’t been Catholic for long. The turning point of his conversion took place in a hospital chapel where he prayed for the healing of his then-newborn daughter, who was suffering from two collapsed lungs. When she was later baptized, he announced to his wife, who is Catholic, his desire to enter the Church.
Within a few months, McKinley joined the Knights, and earlier this year, he received the Shining Armor Award for his exceptional commitment to council activities.
“I try and give as much of my time as I can,” he said.
As for Gibney, he joined the Order last October. Inspired by Council 1497’s walking rosary at his father’s funeral in July, he took a closer look at the Knights and was impressed by their local activities.
“What they do for the community is phenomenal,” he said.
Since becoming a member, Gibney added, he has made a conscious effort to pray more and faithfully reads a daily devotion book given to him by his wife.
He said the reflection for March 18, the day the floodwaters began to recede, was particularly meaningful to him. Citing verses such as Ps 84:12 and Jer 17:7, the reflection was titled simply: “Trust me one day at a time.”
JOSEPH PAPPALARDO is a content producer for the Knights of Columbus Corporate Communications Department.
AFTER THE TWISTER
Alabama Knights help victims of the deadliest U.S. tornado in six years
ROB WILBURN was home praying as a tornado roared overhead March 3. His wife, Mary, was also praying, on retreat 18 miles away.
“My concern was for her and to make sure that she got home safely,” said Wilburn, a member of Father Thomas Augustin Judge Council 13415 in Phenix City, Ala.
Dozens of tornadoes were reported throughout the region that day, but the strongest devastated several rural communities in Lee County, northwest of Phenix City. The EF-4 tornado, with winds up to 200 mph, was a mile wide and covered more than 24 miles before it dissipated. It was the nation’s deadliest tornado in six years; 23 people were killed, more than twice the total number of tornado-related deaths in 2018. In the aftermath, Knights in Alabama responded swiftly to help with recovery efforts.
Alabama State Deputy Jason Esteve contacted Wilburn, who serves as district deputy of the hardest hit area, telling him that the state council would assist with whatever the local Knights needed. Making use of his U.S. Army experience cleaning up after natural disasters, Wilburn began coordinating K of C distribution centers in Opelika and Smiths Station.
Knights from Council 13415 and Auburn University Council 8696 were the first to respond to a call for volunteers to help remove debris from victims’ homes.
“You see acres of trees taken down, houses completely wiped out, while a house next door is still standing,” said Wilburn. “It’s eye-opening.”
The K of C clean-up crew traveled to assist people in dire need. Their first stop was to help a man whose mobile home had been thrown 45 feet by the tornado. Thankfully, he was not inside at the time.
“The home had been lifted off of its foundation, dropped, and lifted and dropped a second time,” explained Theodore Johnson, a member of Council 13415.
Knights from other parts of Alabama also traveled to Lee County and joined in the recovery efforts. Assisted by Catholic school students, Church of the Holy Spirit Council 12150 in Montgomery prepared dinner for more than 100 first responders.
Wilburn said that spirits were strong despite the immense damage. “People were happy to see us,” he said, “and they were more concerned about their neighbor than themselves.”
— reported by Andrew Fowler, a content producer for the Knights of Columbus Corporate Communications Department.