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Need continues for response to '97 FLOODS

BY SUSAN KIM | NORTH DAKOTA | September 15, 1998

NORTH DAKOTA (September 15, 1998) -- Statistics from the spring 1997 floods in the Upper Midwest look like a Guinness Book of World Records entry: 8,600 homes and 1,616 apartments damaged or destroyed; 60,000 tons of debris; 3.5 million sandbags; $800 million in federal financial aid. Sixteen months after the region was slammed by eight record blizzards, followed by a spring thaw that swelled the river and eventually collapsed the dikes residents are still tallying the damages.

But they're tallying the good news on recovery, too.

Faith-based organizations in North Dakota, Minnesota, and South Dakota registered 20,000 volunteers in the first four months alone after the disaster. An anonymous giver -- later revealed to be McDonald's heiress Joan Kroc -- donated $15 million to families in need. And just last month, nearly 1,000 volunteers traveled from all over the country to help rebuild homes. They're part of a recovery effort that is still urgently needed. The flood may be out of the media spotlight, but its aftermath -- financial strain, emotional stress, displaced people -- is uppermost in the hearts and minds of many midwesterners.

But today, those leading the region's recovery through faith-based organizations are worried because the numbers of volunteers have fallen off abruptly. The Valley Interfaith Coalition To Recovery Of the Upper Red River Valley (VICTORY) in Grand Forks, ND; Upper Midwest Recovery in Fargo, ND; and Lutheran Disaster Response in St. Paul, MN are all redoubling their efforts to publicize the need and urge volunteers to help.

"We'll be here at least four more years," said Terry Tuinder, executive director of VICTORY, a coalition of local churches and national relief organizations working throughout North Dakota and Minnesota. "We're still getting cases -- particularly elderly people or those in rural areas -- that haven't even been able to clean out their basements yet. We've got hundreds of damaged foundations and buckled floors. We still have more than 1,100 homes to essentially rebuild from the ground up."

Joan Buchhop, site manager for Lutheran Disaster Response, said that, after a summer of steady help, she hasn't booked a single volunteer in the last two weeks. "We have an ongoing stream of homes to rebuild and right now we're forced to concentrate only on essential living space. That means a lot of basements aren't getting cleaned out and repaired."

Letting a flooded basement go may not sound hazardous. But it's making homeowners sick. A toxic "black mold" has incubated in many homes during warm summer weather, causing flu-like symptoms in homeowners. "Asthma and allergies have also skyrocketed," Buchhop said.

In June, Lorraine Koth's basement -- which took in 7? feet of water last spring -- was repaired by volunteers coordinated through the United Methodist Church's Upper Midwest Recovery.

"I live in Grand Forks -- one mile from where the dikes first broke. I received money from FEMA that covered the materials to repair my basement, but not enough to cover the labor," said Koth, a single parent who works at a local healthcare facility. "These teams of volunteers have been God's hands at work in my life. There are still people out here who need help. We just come from a region where we don't always ask for help when we need it."

Bob Pollock was one of the volunteers who worked on Koth's basement -- and on eight other Grand Forks homes as well. In August, he traveled from Evansville, IN with the Nomads, an organization of about 1,000 retirees across the U.S. who own RVs and travel around helping those in need.

"I worked with 42 different volunteers in the month of August," Pollock said. "But when we left there were no more volunteers signed up. I'd like people to know that the need is still there. There are still people living in FEMA- funded trailers."

Jerry Orr, regional coordinator for Upper Midwest Recovery, handled 50 new recovery cases every week this past summer, including disaster survivors with serious mental health needs. "There's a lot of depression. The suicide rate is up, and so is abuse," he said. "The river did rise some this spring, and you should have seen the expression on people's faces. They were in a trance."

Orr said that, ironically, people in rural areas are just now seeking help -- even as volunteerism slacks off. "A lot of volunteers are reluctant to come when the weather gets cool, but most of the work at this point is indoors. A lot of people think that, since it's been over a year since the flood, the communities are back on their feet. Well, they're way off-base about that."

Many homeowners are putting off repairs until federal, state, and city organizers and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers determine where new dikes will be built. "Regardless of where they build the dikes, there will be people on the wet side and people on the dry side," said Orr. "They don't know which way to jump."

Melissa McCray, administrative staff at the Lutheran Social Services of Minnesota, said that her organization has been coordinating "pilgrimages" of local church leaders, who travel to the region to assess the lingering damages, then go back and appeal to their congregations for volunteers. "We are hoping that, by seeing the need firsthand, they will be able to make people understand how much we need their help," she said.

Posted September 15, 1998


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