OH flood hits vulnerable area

At four o'clock in the morning on May 19, Ken Willie was not at home sleeping.

BY HEATHER MOYER | TRIMBLE, Ohio | June 4, 2004

"Many people are homeless now, and more could be soon."

—Ken Willie

At four o'clock in the morning on May 19, Ken Willie was not at home sleeping. He was out monitoring the water levels in Sunday Creek, a usually calm stream running through Trimble, Ohio.

Heavy rain had pushed the creek out of its banks and into the small village very quickly, and Willie said he was doing his best to help keep himself and residents out of its way.

"I had my truck and I was helping rescue people from their homes," he said. "I also helped pull some cars out of the water as well."

Those severe rainstorms and flashfloods in mid-May wreaked havoc in southeast Ohio, destroying more than 25 homes in Athens and Perry Counties and severely damaging another 100.

Since that night spent awake helping his neighbors, Willie hasn't stopped.

On a bright Friday morning in Glouster, another small town just north of Trimble, Willie sat in front of the local Masonic lodge. The Salvation Army has a donations center set up in the lodge.

"I've been helping out here for about two weeks, helping sort clothes and such," he said, leaning against a table covered in donated canned goods. "I also loaned out my trailer for a while to help people get rid of trash and to help pick up donated items."

Willie said he imagines the donations center will be open for at least another two weeks due to how seriously many people's homes were damaged.

"Many people are homeless now, and more could be soon," he explained. "Homes keep being condemned."

Yet some good news came today in the form of federal help. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced that eight counties in Ohio, including Athens and Perry Counties, would be eligible for federal aid.

"We're so relieved by this decision," said Mary Woodward, disaster response coordinator for Lutheran Social Services and Lutheran Disaster Response in Ohio. "It would've been a huge challenge if we hadn't received this."

Woodward is helping coordinate disaster relief in Athens and Perry Counties, which sit in the poorest region in Ohio. Part of Appalachia, the area is economically depressed and few had flood insurance. Willie added that many residents are also elderly and on fixed incomes.

The flooded Sunday Creek that hit Trimble, created a path of damage all along its route through the counties, hitting Glouster, Jacksonville, and Corning.

The donations center Willie helps staff gets a steady stream of flood survivors. Many flood-affected families also donate their time helping sort clothes and food at the center. Willie's wife also pitches in by laundering donated clothes.

The declaration couldn't come at a better time to people who have been waiting for assistance. Sorting clothes at a table in the donations center, a woman named Heidi voiced her frustration.

"We've hardly gotten any help," said Heidi, who declined to give her last name. "I've tried going to many places, but I've only gotten a little monetary help. I can't even live in my home right now."

Willie agreed with the help moving in slowly. "I'd like to see things move a little faster, many folks are starting to feel a bit abandoned," he said.

'Luckily we weren't here'

North of Trimble and Glouster is the even smaller village of Hemlock.

Nestled in a valley amongst the trees along Route 155 in Perry County, people might miss it if they're not specifically looking for it.

On the same sunny Thursday, several Hemlock residents are cleaning out their homes. In a modular home on the side of a hill, Bob Stanley and Cynthia Koon are picking up debris in their backyard. When the heavy rains hit, a wall of water came rushing down the hill and into their home.

"The stream next to our home overflowed and filled with debris," said Stanley. "The water was all through Hemlock. Luckily we weren't here when it happened, but we pretty much lost everything."

Their next-door neighbor also didn't fare well, as the wall of water went right in their back door and came out the front. Stanley said hardly anyone in the area has insurance.

"The area floods pretty often, and we need help," said Stanley.

Bring on the volunteers

Woodward knows today's FEMA declaration will start the ball rolling on home repairs. "This means I can start recruiting volunteers, and we're going to need the people power. There's only so much a homeowner can do with the maximum $5,100 they can get from FEMA, so we just need to start bringing volunteers in," explained Woodward. "Volunteer agencies are essential in this process."

And Woodward's not alone in the faith-based relief around Athens and Perry Counties. The United Church of Christ, United Methodist Church, Lutheran Disaster Response, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, Episcopal Church, Nazarene Disaster Services, and Adventist Community Service all are involved. She added that they're also helping the local Church of Christ denominations be active.

The southeast Ohio area is familiar with weather disasters, as it experiences floods fairly often. "Yes, due to our experience down here, we're a pretty tight group," laughed Woodward. "I think we've got more experience than we want."

So even before this FEMA declaration, the various denominations, along with other local community agencies, were lending a hand to those in need as best they could.

'How do you answer that?'

Seated in a former Methodist Church-turned office in Trimble, Candi Withem thought for a minute about how residents adjust to the floods.

"I can't imagine that you ever get used to it," said Withem, training and outreach coordinator for Rural Action in Trimble. "But you do learn to understand the reality of the problem. People are ready for it many times. When it rains, they prepare."

Rural Action is a community development agency serving all 29 Appalachian counties in Ohio. The main office is in Trimble - which became a shelter for a brief time during the May floods. That changed quickly when the last road out of Trimble was almost underwater.

"A sheriff's deputy came and knocked on our door, and told us we needed to leave the village because we could've ended up trapped," said Withem. "This flood came up very quickly, much faster than usual."

Rural Action also quickly became an emergency operations center for the area. Withem said families were able to pick up donated house cleaning supplies, food and information on how to get more assistance. They even teamed up with the nearby Ohio University College of Osteopathic Medicine to offer free tetanus shots to anyone who wanted one.

During the '98 flood, the office provided similar assistance, although Withem said it was a little different this time. "I feel we were much better prepared for this one than the first one back in '98," she laughed.

Withem also voiced her concerns about the poverty in the area. "Many folks around here live paycheck-to-paycheck," she said. "They don't have savings or any type of back-up to dip into for costly home repairs or replacements of appliances and other property.

"So when this happens, where do you go? What do you do? People come in and say 'I lost everything,' or a kid says 'I lost all my toys,' - What do you say to that?"

Despite the difficult conversations, Withem said Rural Action does everything they can to assist the flood families. Several weeks after the May floods, Rural Action still serves as a referral service of sorts.

Withem said when people call in needing a new refrigerator or help cleaning out a flooded furnace, she helps point them in the right direction.

"We hate to see these things happen, but we do the best we can to help," she said. "I'm glad we're here."

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