It was a day already synonymous with disaster, but when flash floods devastated 24 counties in the state of Colorado on Sept. 11, 2013, the disaster relief team at Catholic Charities of Broome County (CCBC) knew they could help. Three staff members from CCBC — Deputy Director Tonya Brown; Tammy Hodges, a care manager for the mental health department; and Shelly Kaminsky, manager of Youth, Family and Community Services — put their usual work assignments aside and traveled to Colorado on Sept. 29, staying until Oct. 6. Having been through floods in their own area, the CCBC staff knew their unique experience could help many affected by the flood waters.
In 2006, the town of Conklin, N.Y., was devastated by a flood, known as the “500-year-flood” since a storm of that type is thought to happen every 500 years. But just five years later, another flash flood damaged most of the town of Endicott and surrounding areas. Members of the CCBC staff were not only directly affected, they also became personally involved in coordinating short-term and long-term relief to these areas. They became the go-to “experts” on helping communities cope and rebuild in the wake of a flash flood.
“Our staff learned ‘on-the-job’ how to provide assistance and manage disaster relief efforts for our residents during the major floods in our area in 2006 and 2011,” stated Brown, who acted as the CCBC lead coordinator for the Colorado flood relief effort.
“We also traveled down to Long Island to assist with the Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts and were able to take all that learning to Denver,” she said.
Brown and her Broome County team worked with local volunteers from Denver Catholic Charities, the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and other emergency responders to ensure residents who needed help received it in a timely fashion.
“Many of the mountain communities in Denver were cut off when roads and bridges were washed away,” explained Brown. “Without access to main roads people in these small communities had to hike in and out of the woods just to get help. A 45-minute car trip suddenly became a four-hour ordeal.”
Each day that Brown and her team were in Colorado, they would take a group of volunteers and a GPS tracker and find remote areas where people needed assistance.
“We often found out who needed help through word-of-mouth,” stated Brown. “If someone had a friend or a relative they hadn’t heard from, we would check that area. The greatest challenge we encountered was identifying those communities that needed help immediately. It was hard to find the more isolated communities and they were often without electricity, phone or water.”
Salina was one of the small communities Brown and her team gave assistance to, providing cases of water and cleaning supplies for the town of 40 residents. “They were so relieved when we came,” explained Brown. “It had already been a week since the flooding and our supplies were the first help the town had seen.”
Although Colorado has often dealt with fire-related disasters, floods are not as prevalent a problem.
“Fire is something Colorado is used to, but a flood is completely devastating,” explained Brown. “People not only have to navigate to safety, there’s the issue of water rising from rivers throughout the area and finding housing for people who have been displaced, and we’re not just talking one family, but many families. Fire may leave one home in ruin; but a flood impacts an entire community.”
As they helped clean up the mud, the muck and what remained after the flood’s destruction, Brown’s team was consistently praised for their positive attitude and sense of humor.
“These people just wanted to be treated with respect, not pity,” stated Brown. “They needed help to figure out how to restore their lives and we understood what they lived through. It wasn’t just about handing them supplies; it was about helping their families.”
Kaminsky agreed. “I had one man come up to me and asked to shake my hand,” she laughed. “He told me he was grateful that our organization was always visible and ready to help the community.”
Throughout the week, as people lined up to fill out FEMA forms or receive clean water, Brown and her team helped calm frayed nerves and assisted residents with the necessary paperwork.
After putting in 12-hour work days for a week, Brown and her team returned to Broome County exhausted, but proud of what they accomplished in Colorado.
“I love what I do, especially if it can be a positive influence for someone else,” stated Brown. “You just never know when the simple things you do for someone creates a big impact. When I got back from Colorado, there was a card waiting for me from a woman I had spoken to in one of the mountain communities. We had what I thought was just a regular sort of conversation. But she tracked me down just to say thanks. That really touched my heart.”
Kaminsky also felt this project made an emotional impact on her life. “This is the best job I ever did,” stated Kaminsky. “Helping is faith-based and I believe it’s the reason why we are all here. And if tomorrow there was another disaster and someone needed my help, I’d be on the next flight out.”