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Fort Smith flood waters rise along Arkansas River

Parishioners rally to support those affected by flooding in ‘Catholic Cove’

Published: June 10, 2019   
On May 30, Captain Phillip Stevens of the 188th Fighter Wing and an Immaculate Conception parishioner, escorts Kristin Dahlgren and an NBC News crew to interview residents of Canterbury Cove whose homes were flooded.

FORT SMITH — Shortly after the Arkansas River flooded the northern end of the Canterbury Cove subdivision May 31, homes were only accessible by water taxi. “Captain” Bo Hunter, who had helped residents evacuate days earlier in a borrowed boat, took them back to survey the damage.

Phillip Stevens, a drone pilot at the 188th Air National Guard, having brought his wife Kristi and four sons to safety, was standing sentry over the abandoned homes of his neighbors.

“The Stevens live next door,” Eileen Teagle, an art teacher at Trinity Junior High School, said. “Last weekend, 30 men from the 188th showed up at the Stevens house with a flatbed trailer filled with sandbags to share with all of us.”

Canterbury Cove is sometimes called “Catholic Cove,” because of the many Catholic families, parishioners at Immaculate Conception, Christ the King and Sacred Heart of Mary churches, who settled there.

“There’s a wonderful support group in that because so many of us have raised our children in the Catholic schools or grown up in the same parishes,” Teagle said. “Dr. Pam Byrd (retired Christ the King principal) and several Immaculate Conception and Trinity teachers live here. Catholics own 10 of the homes that were flooded.”

In May towns along the Arkansas River faced the worst flooding in recent history. 

On May 23, as soon as the Fort Smith community learned their homes were in danger, friends and neighbors showed up to help.

“People came with boxes and tape and started to pack us up,” Teagle said. “We are taught we are Christ’s hands, and we were surrounded by so much love, grace and prayers to sustain us.”

Trinity Coach Jeff Meares, while on a family vacation, offered his home to the Teagle family. Friends who owned a warehouse stored their furniture.

“One of our neighbors ... (an Immaculate Conception parishioner) suffered a heart attack from the stress and heat of moving,” Teagle said. “While his wife and children rushed to Mercy Hospital, friends packed and moved all their things for them.

“Another family, Jeanne and Jay Stringfellow, were helping Jeanne’s mother, Maureen Didion, whose home was facing flooding for the second time in four years. When they learned that their home was also in danger of flooding, Jeanne’s sister, Janet Gilker, helped them to evacuate.”

While returning to her home by boat, Teagle saw Father John Antony, Immaculate Conception pastor, with parishioner Michael Hadley.

“It was such a peaceful powerful moment to see we are truly a family and that Father John came to check up on us. He is a man who truly cares about his flock.”

In the nearby subdivision of Village Harbor, residents were also preparing for the flood.

“When we decided we needed to evacuate,” Debbie Bogner said, “Tim and I put out a call to our monthly family rosary group at St. Boniface Church. They all showed up with trucks and trailers, moved out all our first floor furniture and helped some of our neighbors who were in the same situation.”

They were especially concerned about fellow parishioner Debbie Bentley, who was visiting family in Atlanta.

Although the water has only crept up into the floor vents on their Village Harbor block, the Bogners are staying vigilant.

“Tim is staying upstairs in our house checking on the pump and keeping up with the rising water,” Bogner said. “We’re hoping the flood has crested, but it can rise seven inches higher. People are being very generous in helping us all.”

Matt Hutchinson, who leads Knights of Columbus Council 996, said the River Valley flood, the worst on record, is new territory for them all and that relief agencies were having difficulty organizing and coordinating their efforts. They have sandbagged with Community Bible Church, located near the flooded neighborhoods and offered to cook chicken up for volunteers. “After we ran out of sandbags, I ran about five or six deliveries for evacuees with my truck,” Hutchinson said. “While I was gone, Community Bible emptied out their volleyball pit to get more sand.”

Immaculate Conception parishioners José Galvan and Manuel Ordóñez volunteered near the downtown riverfront area to fill sandbags.

“So many people — blacks, Asians, Hispanics, Anglos, young and old — all came together for the city of Fort Smith,” Galvan said. “Older women grabbed waters to bring to the workers. Even 7-year-olds helped tie the bags. OK Foods, banks and hotels were cooking food for volunteers, evacuees, and people in need. No one asked for any IDs.”

On June 1-2, Fort Smith Catholic churches took up collections for flood relief, with half the money collected to be given to relief organizations and the other half to be used to help affected families in each parish. The parishes have teamed with OK Foods to provide meals for flooded families and relief workers. Parishioners were asked to donate canned vegetables and cases of bottled water.  

They were encouraged to volunteer in local relief efforts coordinated by United Way at their hub in the Sears building at the mall and pray for families, farmers, businesses and infrastructure impacted by the flood.

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