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Neighbors reach out in PA

After floods ravaged his town, the Rev. George Mendis is able to still see the good.

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

"We're just trying to put this place fully back together again."

—Rev. George Mendis

After watching flash floods ravage his town, the Rev. George Mendis is able to still see the good come out of the destruction.

"God doesn't work in bombastic ways, it's in the small areas you see him," said Mendis in his office at Christ Lutheran Church. "I think that's multiplied with all the neighbor-to-neighbor fellowship. It's been a blessing."

Mendis' church did not escape damage from the major flooding caused by Tropical Storm Ivan three weeks ago, and it also did not escape the generous volunteer spirit the rest of the town is seeing now as well. "We've always had a food pantry here, but we had water in the basement. We lost all of our freezers and the food," explained Mendis. "We were trying to restock, and once word got out, we ended up receiving food from everywhere. I think we might even have more now than we did before."

Millvale is a borough of Pittsburgh. Like many surrounding areas of the city during Ivan, heavy rains quickly pushed small creeks from their banks. "It was fast and just overwhelming, there was no time to prepare for it. People were not prepared for it."

According to Mendis, pastor of Christ Lutheran Church since 1989, the water came in through the back door of the town this time. Normally prone to flooding from the Allegheny River on one side, three weeks ago Ivan's downpours swelled small creeks on the other side of town. Streets quickly became swift rivers, and the majority of the downtown business section experienced significant damage. Entire residential streets were underwater. Over 30 of Mendis' parishioners were affected.

The first task of the church was to fix its basement damages. Besides offering a food pantry to the town, Christ Lutheran's basement was also home to an after-school program and a senior citizen meal program. "We're just trying to put this place fully back together again. It's a vital part of the community - all of the churches here are."

Mendis then listed off the damages to the other Millvale churches. Many had water in their basements. First United Church of Christ Millvale suffered major damage to its thrift store, forcing it to close. The Millvale Ministerium has been working together since the floods, but all the members agreed that the first issue is to get the churches open and functioning again for the residents.

Concerns about how the community will pull through are close to Mendis' heart. High water destroyed many furnaces, mold is starting to grow, and many residents did not have flood insurance. Those that did, said Mendis, are quickly discovering the small print of their policies. "It doesn't cover everything."

He added his worries about the business district. "It was torn to shreds. I think most will come back, but it will be a long haul. All of this is taking its toll. The local businesses are trying to take care of their employees, but they can only do so much while rebuilding."

Frustration and stress are appearing around town now as well. Mendis described the relief process so far as an emotional roller coaster for all involved, with many people running around upset and tired. Yet the town's determination is strong, with almost all of the businesses pledging to reopen. One local baker lost everything in his downtown storefront. When offered a brand new furnished bakery in another part of Pittsburgh, he refused it, saying he would not leave Millvale.

"The loyalty to this town is amazing," said Mendis.

The biggest need for flood families right now is money. Mendis said he has been receiving help from his synod, and the outpouring of support from volunteers has been great. "It's amazing having all these volunteers come in from all over. They don't have to be here."

Residents are pulling together and taking care of each other as well, what the pastor said is a sign of how strong the community is despite the hardship. "It's that small town toughness, the 'we ain't giving in to it.'"

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