Towns rebuild after Red River flood

BY SUSAN KIM | BRECKENRIDGE, MN | February 2, 2000


A few basements and homes still need repairs, a few sump pumps need to be installed, and some people need help preparing for the next flood -- if and when it happens.

But considering that 90 percent of the homes in this community sustained water damage in the Red River Valley floods in spring of 1997, recovery could almost be described as complete -- or as near completion that disaster recovery ever gets.

People in Breckenridge and scores of other towns still vividly remember the trauma of that disaster.

"I could step outside my office door and feel the pain in the air, without even talking to anybody. It was a presence," said Barbara Vondal, a counselor for the early childhood education program Head Start.

Vondal is also a board member of Lend A Helping Hand, a flood recovery program, that, from its headquarters in the Breckenridge United

Methodist Church, helped 1,269 flood-affected families and individuals in Richland County, N.D. and Wilkin County, Minn.

Lend A Helping Hand was finally able to officially end its recovery work last fall. In October 1999, the Rev. Terry Tilton, chairman, closed the books and sent a letter to supporters calling the group "the unsung story of the flood of '97."

Tilton, who also serves as pastor at the Breckenridge and Foxhome United Methodist churches, oversaw more than 30 months of intensive

rebuilding and recovery work. Lend A Helping Hand distributed some $1.3 million in direct aid to survivors, and coordinated more than

1,130 volunteers who contributed 22,670 hours of labor, including lifting more than 1 million sandbags and rebuilding hundreds of homes.

Deanna Ruggiero, administrator and casework supervisor, said that, while these numbers are impressive, they don't move her as much as

the personal cards and letters from survivors.

One woman wrote, "We were just going to leave the house as it was until Lend A Helping Hand offered assistance." Her husband, who

suffers from asthma, emphysema, and cancer, developed mold allergies from the condition of their basement.

Ruggiero said, "Up until my last day of work, clients were calling to ask me for a forwarding address so that they can send me pictures of

their new homes. That is really special."

Tilton added that Lend A Helping Hand could not have accomplished so much without interfaith, community, business, and individual

support.

"In good measure this would not have happened without the financial contributions of 86 foundations, churches, church groups, civic

organizations, and individuals who gave so generously in compassion and caring," he said.

Vondal characterized the experience of organizing flood recovery as "excruciatingly painful, affirming, uplifting, and gratifying."

"You would discover, for example, an elderly lady who was living in her porch. Her home had been flooded and her basement was still full

of water. She didn't know what to do and she was scared, asking 'If my home is condemned, where will I go? I don't have enough money to

buy a new home or build one.' "

While Lend A Helping Hand members were well aware of the needs surrounding them, they didn't expect those needs to last quite so long.

"The longevity was a complete surprise to me," said Rick Steckler, another board member and also president of the Community First

National Bank.

At a one-year anniversary commemoration event, more than 600 residents lit candles then floated them down the river. At that point, recovery work was actually on the rise.

"It took so long partly because it was hard to get contractors to bid on small jobs of $1,000 to $10,000," said Steckler.

Volunteers who aren't licensed carpenters or plumbers are often prohibited by state or county building codes from doing work that

requires inspection.

"Also, people wanted to go through the healing process and didn't want to face the fact that they had to do something with their homes.

They didn't want their lives interrupted again. So they were handling it by ignoring it," he said.

As many months went by, volunteers became more difficult to recruit but, as volunteer Lloyd Imker put it: "Thank God there's some that

want to do it."

Carolyn Black volunteered in Breckenridge with a Methodist church group for two years in a row. "They invited us back and we thought that was quite a compliment," she said. "We painted a house for an older couple, did some basement work, jacked up a sagging porch."

"Especially when we went back the second time, we could see that people were still really in need -- proud people who just said 'we'll fix it

ourselves' and didn't have the time, energy, or money to do it. That second year we invited our friends whose homes we worked on the

year before. The tears flowed freely."

Steve Bresnahan, executive director for the Diocese of St. Cloud Catholic Charities, helped provide counselors for the area -- a service that was a challenge to administer because so many residents were fiercely independent. "People are part of the original hardy pioneer stock," he said. Catholic Charities continues to provide help as needed.

Vondal said an oft-repeated comment she heard was: well, yes, I had some damage, but so-and-so has it much worse.

"It was as if people were thinking 'if mine is not the worst disaster, then I don't have a right to grieve.' This is the original 'pull yourself up by your own bootstraps' culture. Stoicism is revered."

But Lend A Helping Hand continued to reach out for nearly three years -- and is still quietly helping families. The group's motto is: "The

difference between a helping hand and an outstretched palm is a twist of a wrist."

Patience and persistence paid off. "I believe there were almost no people who didn't end up in a home comparable to the home they lived in

that was flooded," said Vondal.

In this flood recovery -- and in many other communities recovering from disaster -- the most difficult cases and those requiring the most

assistance surfaced more than two years after the disaster.

"These were people who just couldn't make the decision to let their home go," she said. "Or they couldn't bring themselves to ask for help."

Bresnahan added that, in many ways, Breckenridge is in stronger financial and structural condition than it was before the flood struck. "It's better than it's been in years. It's an ironic way to have it end up."

Breckenridge, like many other towns along the Red River Valley, is also better prepared to respond to disaster. "We've got a plan in place, and a three-ring binder that outlines, step-by-step, what we have to do," said Steckler.

But Vondal said that, while the books may be officially closed on flood recovery, the community is still working through its pain. "I don't

think you can overestimate the emotional impact of this kind of disaster."


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