DAVENPORT, Iowa — Had it not been for a Pentecost prayer vigil, St. Anthony Catholic Church in downtown Davenport would not have been open at 5 p.m. on a Sunday night, said its pastor, Father Rudolph Juarez. Tenants fleeing from a partially collapsed apartment building a little more than a block away were grateful for that blessing the night of May 28.
“It was providential this (prayer vigil) was going on. I’m just glad there were no deaths,” Father Juarez told The Catholic Messenger, newspaper of the Diocese of Davenport. “I was equally pleased that St. Anthony once again was ready to serve our downtown folks. That is indeed a blessing.”
A section of the apartment building — six stories high — had collapsed, leaving the residents dazed and shaken. Many of them lived in the building that housed 80 apartment units and four commercial units because of its affordability. Many of them often turned to St. Anthony for a meal or pantry items to tide them over, said John Cooper, St. Anthony’s pastoral associate and business manager.
First responders from the city of Davenport rescued seven people from the apartment building Sunday night, one more person overnight and still another person the next day, which was Memorial Day.
No fatalities have been reported to date. However, “five individuals are still unaccounted for, two of those we believe to be possibly still in the building,” Davenport Mayor Mike Matson said during a May 30 press briefing.
First responders from multiple agencies in Iowa and Illinois, along with utilities’ crews and health care providers responded to the crisis. Matson praised first responders for risking their lives to save others in an extremely dangerous rescue operation. News outlets reported and city officials confirmed complaints from tenants about needed repairs in the building.
The city of Davenport declared the building “structurally insecure and in imminent danger of collapse” and plans to demolish the building in a multiphase process, according to a news release. As tenants and family members searching for the whereabouts of loved ones arrived at St. Anthony after Sunday night, “the fire marshal asked me if St. Anthony could lend its space,” Father Juarez said. St. Anthony’s is well known for its service to the most vulnerable and marginalized people.
Cooper, who had been at St. Anthony’s earlier May 28 before heading to the Scott County Jail for prison ministry, returned to the church at Father Juarez’s request. Assisting Cooper were Tina Wagschal, the parish secretary and accountant, and Al Gahagan, kitchen supervisor for the parish’s McAnthony Window program, and several volunteers. They served homemade deli sandwiches and picked up boxes of Little Caesars Pizza, which was a big hit with the guests, Cooper said.
“We try to be a presence for the people. We know a lot of the people because a lot of them come to McAnthony Window,” he said of the parish’s longtime food ministry that serves people in need.
Lorena Pérez, a member of the charismatic prayer group, posted this message on social media Sunday night: “We ask for your prayers. Today as we were in prayer, people started pouring into our San Antonio parish in Davenport, IA. They were very, very scared as the building where they lived was collapsing. They had nowhere to go and thank God a very small group (of us) were in prayer and by the grace of God the church was open. Now it’s a haven for them. … Now San Antonio is a sanctuary for them. Thank God they found a place to go.”
Finding temporary homes for all of the displaced individuals and families is the responsibility of the Red Cross and Salvation Army. St. Anthony offered space, but did not have showers. Officials decided to send tenants to the Center for Active Seniors Inc. (CASI) in Davenport.
Another organization, Humility Homes and Services Inc. (HHSI) is serving 12 of the households from the downtown Davenport apartment building through a Rapid Rehousing program.
Now, “they’ve lost their apartments. We made the decision to put them up in hotels because of the trauma” they are experiencing, Ashley Velez, HHSI’s executive director.
On Memorial Day, in response to the partial collapse of the apartment building, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds issued a disaster proclamation for Scott County, where Davenport is located.
Her May 29 proclamation activates the Iowa Individual Assistance Grant Program and the Disaster Case Management Program for residents impacted by the collapse. Grants of up to $5,000 are available to households with incomes up to 200% of the federal poverty level and can be used for home or car repairs, replacement of clothing or food, and temporary housing expenses.
Both Velez and Cooper worry about a more permanent solution, with 80 units of affordable housing now eliminated, exacerbating the shortage in affordable housing.
“We need to make sure we have good, safe, affordable housing stock,” Velez said. “We have a crisis and we need to do something together.” Cooper said, “What’s going through my mind is how fragile people’s lives can be. They’re trying to get by. A lot of the people are on fixed income.”