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'Can you swim?'

On a rainy Friday afternoon three weeks ago, Bob Sheets entered Janet Wilson's home, picked her up and carried her out.

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

"You wouldn't believe how fast that water came up."

—Cathy Dunn

On a rainy Friday afternoon three weeks ago, Bob Sheets entered Janet Wilson's home, picked her up and carried her out the back door. When asked why she could not leave through the front door, Sheets answered with his own question, "Can you swim?"

The entire street in front of Wilson's home was flooded, and the water was rising very quickly. Heavy rains from the remnants of Hurricane Ivan devastated many areas around Pittsburgh, including the small borough of Etna.

Retelling the story three weeks later in the basement of Calvert Memorial Presbyterian Church, Sheets and Wilson are able to laugh about it. Wilson ended up losing everything in her basement and on her first floor, but said she is happy to be alive. A resident of Etna for 57 years, she does not remember seeing the water ever come up that quickly or that high before.

"It was in my cellar and up on my first floor, all the way up to here," she said holding her hand at chest level. Later she took time to list off everything lost to floodwaters that she could think of. "Refrigerator, furnace, furniture, freezer, washer, dryer,..." she trailed off after counting a finger for each lost item. She then sighed and added, "Oh, and that beautiful desk my late brother made when he was a kid. That really hurt."

Sheets is lucky enough to live on higher ground, so he escaped water damage in his home. On Wednesday afternoon, Sheets, Wilson, and fellow church member and friend Cathy Dunn, were sharing stories from the day of the flood. All three say the streets turned into raging rivers that swept away cars and everything else in their path.

Sheets watched the water rise around a car in the parking lot across from his home. "Then a man came out of a nearby business and opened the car door. There was a woman in there, but I guess she was too scared to get out. He helped her out, and not five minutes later that car floated down the street and then sank."

Dunn and her family lost everything in their first floor apartment to the floodwaters. "You wouldn't believe how fast that water came up," she explained. "I was on the porch watching it when a police officer finally made me leave before it got worse."

Since then, Dunn and family have been living in a local hotel, unsure of where they will live next. "Our landlord only replaced the carpet and then said we could move back in, but I'm not moving back in there. I've got health problems."

Wilson said her house is an absolute mess, and Sheets has been trying to help clean some of it up. "There was so much mud in Janet's basement that we had to cut out the carpet. It was a real mess in there," he said, shaking his head.

Wednesday afternoon was quiet in the basement except for the occasional good-natured laughter from the three friends. They have been volunteering at Calvert Memorial since the floods, helping serve meals and organize the food pantry. As they chat, Calvert Memorial pastor Cynthia Jackson moved about, helping another flood-affected resident gather up food before giving her a ride to a hotel. Jackson also serves on the Etna Team for Neighborhood Assistance (ETNA), a newly-formed local interfaith flood recovery team.

"It can get very hectic at times," she said, running up the stairs.

Back at the table surrounded by cleaning supplies, Sheets, Wilson, and Dunn said they are worried about their friends and neighbors. Many have nowhere to live and others are living in dirty, soggy homes with no power. "People can't dry their homes without electricity," said Dunn.

Sheets spoke up after a brief silence. "And the mold's already growing."

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