PA faces flood cleanup

The streets of Etna are covered in dirt and dust. Piles of waterlogged siding, furniture, and sheetrock line the sidewalks.

BY HEATHER MOYER | ETNA, Pa. | October 8, 2004

The streets of Etna are covered in dirt and dust. Piles of waterlogged siding, furniture, and sheetrock line the sidewalks. The remnants of Hurricane Ivan flooded the Pittsburgh suburb three weeks ago, stranding residents on rooftops and sweeping cars down the streets.

At the Emmanuel Lutheran Church, life is bustling as staff members and volunteers organize flood cleanup supplies, answer phones, and sort donated items. "It's been pretty crazy around here," laughed Rev. Richard Neumann, Emmanuel's pastor.

Heavy rain forced the town's small creek from its bank very quickly. Many residents were caught off-guard with the speed of the rising water, and unlike the last major flood in 1986, the water came up much higher this time. "Folks who only had water up to their first basement step back in '86 had three feet of it in their living rooms this time," explained Neumann. "The rain was torrential. Nobody was killed in this area, though, that's the amazing thing."

Neumann himself was almost stranded that Friday afternoon, having driven to the local grocery store. "I was inside briefly, but then I couldn't drive back the same way I had come, the roads were covered."

He quickly went to the church and opened it for anyone else who found themselves unable to get home. The church's hillside location made it a refuge for many, and that afternoon marked the beginning of the church's role in the relief process. "It started with a pot of coffee for the adults and some Kool-aid for the kids, and then we became a relief station." Since then, church members and volunteers have been serving lunch and dinner to residents. Close to 500 meals are served each day, said Neumann.

With the help of four church members who are also registered nurses, the church later served as a place to receive tetanus shots. Now volunteers are staffing phones, helping answer questions and distributing donated goods.

On Wednesday, the church was also the meeting site of the newly formed Etna Team for Neighborhood Assistance (ETNA) - a group of local churches and social service agencies helping residents recover from one of the worst floods the town has ever seen.

Led by Sister Marguerite Kropinak of the Sisters of St. Joseph, the group is still very much in its beginning stages. Thursday's meeting was only the second for the group, yet committees for such things as networking, volunteer management, case management, and finances are now in place and have their tasks set out before them.

Issues discussed at Thursday's meeting included finding housing for volunteer groups, securing satellite offices around the town, and listing out immediate needs as seen by ETNA's members.

Meals and furnace assistance were issues quickly voiced by the attendees.

Many residents did not have flood insurance, and others need help during the waiting period before their Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) assistance checks arrived. Hundreds of people lost everything.

Representatives from Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) and the Western Penn. Conference of the United Methodist Church also stopped by the meeting to lend their expertise. Mold in the homes is a significant problem. "I was out in the community with my moisture content reader and got readings of 12% in many homes -- it only takes a reading of eight to 10% to start growing mold," said Jim Scott of MDS. "And in the eight days I've been out here, I haven't seen a house with heat on in it yet."

Sister Marguerite said another desperate need is volunteer cleanup groups. Some families are living in homes with mold, no heat, and lots of mud. Scott, along with Fred Watts of the United Methodist Church's Volunteers in Mission program, also voiced concerns about families returning to homes that have not been properly cleaned.

"We even have a hard time convincing churches to get mud out of their crawlspaces, they're saying things like 'well, no one's going to be down there,'" said Watts.

Scott and Watts encouraged ETNA members to hold public meetings about proper mold removal and the health risks of mold.

ETNA is networking with numerous agencies around Pittsburgh with hopes of getting their town the assistance it needs. Sister Marguerite secured one regional construction company for its services as a neutral inspector in case ETNA members see a family that may be being taken advantage of by a shady contractor. Another contact in Pittsburgh will help families replace appliances. One ETNA member is working with the local Meals On Wheels program to make sure families keep getting the food they need.

Despite all the activity thus far, needs in some areas of the town are still surfacing. Several neighborhoods have yet to be surveyed, said ETNA members.

But the community is working together, and people are determined to rise again. "The outpouring of support is amazing, everybody is helping everyone else, the churches are working together," said Neumann.

He also compared the recovery process to the scripture reading for the first Sunday after the flood. "It was about having the faith to move a mulberry tree. I said it was like our situation. For us, we have to have the faith to move that first shovel full of mud."

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