From death to new life, from devastation to hope, from fear to newfound faith, the people of Humphreys County have experienced a range of emotions over the last year as they recover from the catastrophic flash floods that hit the area, particularly Waverly and McEwen, on Aug. 21, 2021.
The impact killed 20 and destroyed or damaged hundreds of homes, leaving many in unpredictable situations.
But simply by love of neighbor, several organizations stepped up, working together to get families back on their feet. One of those organizations is the St. Vincent de Paul conference at St. Patrick Church in McEwen, which has helped provide aid in more than 100 cases.
“It is who we are as Catholics,” said Father Zack Kirangu, pastor of St. Patrick. “It’s the love of God and love of neighbor. It’s bringing the Christian faith, the Catholic faith to people and finding comfort for people.
“St. Vincent de Paul is a great blessing for the parish here at St. Patrick because St. Vincent de Paul has been the prophetic outreach for us,” he continued. “St. Vincent de Paul is the image of St. Patrick Church because that’s where we meet the need.”
“‘No’ is not in my vocabulary,” added Barbara Hooper, the St. Vincent de Paul conference vice president at St. Patrick and flood relief coordinator. Helping these families in need “is just what we do.”
Hooper and Eddie Bozman, another conference member, led the flood relief effort for the conference.
They didn’t waste time after the floods hit to respond, jumping in wherever there was a need, whether it was supplies right after the flood or later fixing homes and providing several “house in a box” — a collection of household items to furnish a home — for families once their home was livable again.
Additionally, they have partnered with various organizations who helped complete the many projects including Inspiritus, the Knights of Columbus, the St. Louis Sluggers, the Mennonites, Long-Term Recovery Group as well as local churches including Waverly Church of Christ, Waverly Church of the Nazarene, First Baptist Church, and Waverly United Methodist Church.
And it’s through the financial donations of organizations, churches and individuals around the world, equaling 20 times their normal annual budget, that helped make much of it possible.
“Fundamentally, we’re a conduit,” Bozman said. “We didn’t come up with this money. We’re just trying to spend it the most efficient way possible.”
And it’s those efforts that have made the difference in bringing several Waverly and McEwen residents to the point they are now as they continue to heal.
‘It’s been a blessing’
For the Bryant family – Shane, Tiffany, 18-year-old Chasity, 20-year-old Kaylynn, and 21-year-old Cheyanna – the day of the flood didn’t just cost them their home, but also their daughter and sister, 15-year-old Lilly, after she was caught in the current of the flood waters while trying to reach safety with her sisters and friends.
On top of trying to figure out their living situation, they also had to deal with their sudden grief. But help stepped in, as well as a little bit of divine intervention. While the first floor of their home was unsalvageable, the second floor, where Lilly’s room was, remained undamaged by the flood waters. So, after purchasing a 700-square-foot home, and completing an expansion, they were able to dedicate a room to Lilly with all her things.
“It’s nice to go in there and sit and look at her things and touch them and reminisce,” Tiffany Bryant said. “It’s hard. It’s still hard. It’s hard every day. But it helps that we have our own space now to be able to grieve and deal with things our own way. We’ve been blessed to be able to stay with people, but it’s also nice to be in our own home.”
It’s a home that came together thanks to volunteers as well as St. Vincent de Paul, who helped by providing the cabinets for the kitchen, lumber for the addition, a “house in a box” to furnish the home and just general support.
“The volunteers, they were here every day,” Shane Bryant said. “The volunteers helped make this happen.”
“It restores your faith in humanity, that’s for sure,” Tiffany Bryant added. “It’s been a blessing. (St. Vincent de Paul) has just been there for us, helped us through it all. Barbara’s called and we’ve heard from many people from there just checking on us, seeing if we need anything and have just always been there. They’ve been just a text or phone call away really.
“I don’t think we’d even be where we’re at or be here” in the home, which they moved into in April, she said. “There’s just no way.”
Now, as they settle, they’ve been “brought new life into the house” with their brand-new grandson, Kailo, born to their daughter Kaylynn, Tiffany Bryant said.
“He’s brought such joy,” she said. “He’s got us all wrapped around his finger.”
“He’s definitely made us fall in love with him,” added Chasity Bryant.
And, most importantly, they’re together as a family.
“It’s feeling more like home,” Tiffany Bryant said. “It doesn’t because we aren’t all together, but then again we are.”
Living by faith
Jane McCarson, who lives off Trace Creek Road in McEwen, said they were expecting water to be around their home as torrential downpours continued throughout the night, but she never expected what came.
By 6:30 a.m. that morning, “the water was already surrounding our house,” when her husband, Jerry, came to get her out, McCarson said. “I was scared. My heart was thumping.”
Although they were able to get to safety, their house was swept away.
“It was slammed up against the trees, turned completely off its foundation,” McCarson explained.
But, thanks to Jerry and the help of family and friends, they were able to salvage parts of the house including several windows, wood, the tin roof and more, and soon were able to build a tiny house on their property.
“I had so much anxiety,” McCarson said. “When (Jerry) started building here, I didn’t want to live here. I wanted to go.”
But she found strength in her faith.
“I came here when we were building it, and on the studs and on the steps I wrote Bible verse after Bible verse just to give me peace in this house,” some of which are still visible, McCarson said. “It helps, it really does.”
And it also helped that they had several people step up, including family and friends, to contribute funds and St. Vincent de Paul, which helped them finish the cabinets in the kitchen and the railing to the upstairs, and provided them with a microwave, stove and refrigerator. Additionally, St. Vincent de Paul gave them gift cards so they could visit their daughter in Michigan over Christmas.
“It was a blessing. It was a Godsend,” McCarson said. “I had been praying to God, ‘How are we going to do this? … How are we going to finish this?’ God just opened doors.
“I just cried” when Hooper came, she added. “I really did. I cried and I hugged her, and I was like, ‘I’m so grateful.’
“God has blessed us,” she said. “I love this little house. God just gave us everything we needed.”
The power of Jesus
Although more than 70 of the 107 cases St. Vincent de Paul has contributed to are closed, there are still about 30 homes that require some help, and Hooper and the rest of the flood relief committee are not slowing down.
Jeff is one of the survivors whose home is still being renovated. He requested that only his first name be used in this article. While his home was able to be saved, there was still significant water damage that had to be addressed, among other issues. And, once again, volunteers from all over were quick to respond.
Then, in March, St. Vincent de Paul stepped in to continue the help with cleanup, painting and organizing it so that his was one of the five homes the St. Louis Sluggers helped rebuild when they visited in the spring for their 31st mission since being established shortly after Hurricane Katrina.
“When those volunteers started coming, it was very powerful. There were several people,” Jeff said. “When those people came into my life, I could feel Jesus’ power. It was like a hug, and it was so strong it was like light coming off. And they didn’t waste a moment.
“It makes me feel good and it made me realize that I had become bitter, and it opened my eyes to just be more willing to look for, ‘What would Jesus do?’” Jeff continued. “I was never upset about anything financially. All my stuff being gone doesn’t faze me. What I get emotional about is those people. They walk the walk. They do what Jesus teaches us to do.”
Ted Rice’s home is another that St. Vincent de Paul is still helping to renovate, working on a deep cleaning, repairing the bathroom, and more after the flood broke out several windows and washed sewage and mud inside.
St. Vincent de Paul “were the first ones to respond to me. Barbara had called that morning to see if I made it to work,” Rice recalled. Realizing he couldn’t get back to his house, later that day he met Hooper in McEwen and stayed at her home that night.
“The next morning, (Hooper and her husband) skipped church, and we came down here and, all of a sudden, all the St. Vincent de Paul members showed up,” Rice said. “It was really unexpected.”
That day and the next, St. Vincent de Paul helped Rice save some of his furniture that was not too badly damaged, clean it and store it in a unit in McEwen until the house was fixed.
“They’ve been great,” Rice said. “I couldn’t ask for anything better.”
Putting a community back together
Along with the multiple non-profit organizations and churches that stepped in, along with St. Vincent de Paul, to help with the relief effort, the leadership of Humphreys County was there, too.
“Being part of the relief effort, being part of the community, and seeing folks like St. Vincent de Paul from across the nation come into our community is second to none,” said Humphreys County Sheriff Chris Davis. “If it wasn’t for St. Vincent de Paul and some of the other organizations, there is no way that we could do what we’ve done to this point without that.
“I’ve learned to accept over the last few months that our home will never be the same. Change in our lives is something that we have to accept whether it’s good or bad,” he said. “I’m extremely happy to see the help, aid and assistance that has come to our home, and it’s something I’ll forever be grateful for and appreciative of.”
‘The good that comes out’
As Hooper and Bozman reflected on the year they’ve had, they realized that their lives were changed just as much as the lives of those they helped.
“It’s beyond happiness that you feel for them,” Hooper said as she thought about those that are back in their homes and thriving. “Each case is different; every person is different. Each situation, you just have to go in and let the Holy Spirit guide you.”
“It’ll never be the same, but it’ll still be good,” Bozman added. “I was proud to see how everybody came together, and I mean everybody.
“We’re a little part,” he added. “We do the part we can, and it’s the generosity from people all over the country that allows us to do it.”
And now their circle has only grown.
“They’ve all become like family and friends,” Hooper said. “That’s the good that has come out of it.”
In September, Hooper and Bozman will be honored with the Disaster Services Corporation-Society of St. Vincent de Paul USA’s 2022 Emerging Leaders Award during the Society of St. Vincent de Paul Annual Conference in Baltimore.