Salvation Army Officers Recollect Flood of 2019

Mar 13, 2024 | by Daisy Hutzell-Rodman

A 5-year-old who just wanted go home to her own room instead of living with her parents and sibling in one room; a century-farm owner who lost his property and ended his days in a nursing home; and even a woman who retained her home but lost her church — these are some of the many people Maj. Donna Miller, a retired Salvation Army officer, thinks about today with tears in her eyes as she recalls the countless lives affected by the Flood of 2019.

She spoke of seeing hundreds of people in emergency centers in Iowa when perhaps only a few dozen were expected. “(Other responders) weren’t prepared for that, so they didn’t have a microphone or anything,” Maj. Miller said. “I introduced myself and made the promise that I would be there from this moment until it was over, no matter what.”

She, and other Salvation Army officers, spoke compassionately of working long hours, praying with hundreds of people, and activating emergency measures unlike any before seen in the Nebraska-Iowa-South Dakota region as they recalled the disaster-relief efforts of The Salvation Army Western Division five years ago this month.

Maj. Joel Arthur was then the Western Division’s Emergency Disaster Services (EDS) director and one of the leaders of the flood-relief operation that stretched across three states.  He also served as divisional historian, and he quickly realized that the division was in the middle of its largest-ever disaster-relief operation.

The flooding was an emergency on par with other natural disasters within the U.S., such as Hurricane Katrina, at which Maj. Arthur also served.  That experience helped him in terms of getting warehouses set up for donations, setting up feeding sites, and distributing flood kits. Still, he said each disaster is different, and the resounding destruction from a hurricane cannot be compared to the destruction left by the floods.

From his spring-2019 post at Western Divisional Headquarters in Omaha, Maj. Arthur assisted with the logistics of getting food, bottled water, cleanup kits, and other supplies delivered to people affected by the flood.  He received daily briefs from the EDS managers in the field and helped coordinate actions such as assigning EDS vehicles based on areas of highest need.  As information came in, The Salvation Army maneuvered available resources to communities all around Nebraska, Iowa, and South Dakota. The organization’s national headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, assisted in this relief effort, as did many other local and regional groups.

Indeed, the entire Salvation Army team responded to the need, working tirelessly up to 12 hours a day to help as many people as possible.  Western Divisional leaders’ forward-thinking actions made sure that their disaster-relief team members had one day of rest each week so they did not exhaust themselves to the point of being unable to help. 

"I think that’s important to remember; that was a good thing that kept us going,” Maj. Arthur said. “At one point, we switched out a couple of players with some new players — that made more sense and that helped to bring a fresh set of eyes to things.”

Northeast Nebraska was hit particularly hard by the floodwaters, and Maj. Jesus Trejo — who was then a captain at the Norfolk Corps — was responsible for assisting nearly a dozen towns in that region.  He was finishing a lunch service to those affected in Norfolk when the call came to help the nearby communities of Pierce and Osmond.  His team was subsequently called to the villages of Niobrara and Verdigre — both just south of Nebraska’s northern border along the Missouri River — and then on to the Santee Reservation.

“A lot of the towns were hard to get to. When I tried to go to Niobrara, I had to go along dirt roads, along side roads,” Maj. Trejo said. “Trailers, cars, mobile homes — they were scattered throughout the fields as I was driving along … a lot of the farmers were really proud people; they never ask for help, so they were really grateful. We would ask what they needed, and they would say ‘just some extra clothes.’  But really, they needed so much more than that, because many of them had lost everything.”

Indeed, many who lost everything in the Flood of 2019 are still recovering today — physically, mentally, emotionally — and The Salvation Army is still helping them.  Back in Iowa, Maj. Miller retired in 2023, but was so moved by the loss in the town of Percival that she became a pastor at Percival Community Church.  Meantime, up in Norfolk, Maj. Trejo said he still sees people affected by the floods who need assistance.

“The Salvation Army was here in the long haul — even after (other relief efforts) left, we were still going at it,” Maj. Arthur said. “That’s what we do.”

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