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Healing along the river

When flood survivors gathered along the Ohio River were invited to express their feelings by throwing a flower or a rock at the river, many of them said they needed both.

BY SUSAN KIM | WHEELING, W.Va. | October 15, 2004

"We have to acknowledge the anger and the grief here."

—Rev. Maggie Sebastian

When flood survivors gathered along the Ohio River were invited to express their feelings by throwing a flower or a rock at the river, many of them said they needed both.

"The river and flooding are part of the rhythm of our lives here," reflected the Rev. Maggie Sebastian, pastor at the First Christian Church in Wheeling, W.Va., where Hurricane Ivan's remnants on Sept. 17 spawned floodwaters that furiously picked up people's homes and slammed them back down.

Residents in West Virginia and Ohio are trying to start a recovery but many of them feel they're swimming upstream against a public perception that it always floods in the hills and hollows - so one more doesn't matter.

The fact is, this time around at least some people are seeing the worst floods of their lives. Their daily life rhythm is broken - and they're understandably angry about it, said Sebastian, who said many of them feel forgotten as the public focuses on other disasters.

"So we have been trying to get across the idea of bringing it back to your faith," she said. Sebastian and others organized a recent riverside healing service, providing rocks and flowers to throw at the river - along with a listening compassionate ear.

"We have to acknowledge the anger and the grief here," she said. "People are grateful to God they're okay - but they're also angry. We tell them it's okay to take both the flower and the rock."

Looking toward recovery with hope, Sebastian and other clergy have offered to do house blessings for every community member who opens the doors to a new home.

With help from Week of Compassion - a giving program administered by the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) - and others, churches like Sebastian's will be helping people recover in the months to come.

"I already think about the needs down the road," Sebastian said. "The holidays are going to be really hard for people."

Country music star Brad Paisley recently announced plans to offer a benefit concert in January in Wheeling to help residents affected by last month's floods. The Brad Paisley Foundation announced it will make proceeds available to flood relief groups working in the area.

Across the river, in Ohio, responders there echoed the sentiment that flood-stricken residents often feel forgotten.

"Frankly, a lot people who usually deal with disaster response here seem to be out of the state helping elsewhere," said Scott Wilson, chair of the Southeastern Ohio Disaster Relief Network (SEODRN), an ecumenical coalition of faith-based and community-based groups. Wilson, a layperson with the United Church of Christ, is also an electrical contractor. The United Church of Christ's national disaster response program has been supporting local response in both West Virginia and Ohio.

On the bright side, Wilson said, he sees volunteers out working in communities every day. "And I see people in their 70s," he said. "These are not your big burly construction people."

What's needed in both West Virginia and Ohio? "People with organizational skills who can mobilize others," said Wilson - and people who won't dismiss this as just another flood.

"Most people who were flooded in southeastern Ohio don't live in a floodplain," he said.

Community trauma was even higher because many people during the flood received erroneous reports about the potential failure of the Middle Wheeling Creek Watershed Dam, though community leaders are still not sure where those reports originated.

The National Weather Service (NWS) confirmed it was advised by the Wheeling-Ohio County Emergency Management Agency on Sept. 17 to issue a flood watch along Middle Wheeling Creek due to the potential failure of the dam.

But Wheeling-Ohio County officials said they advised the NWS to issue a flood watch, mentioning the dam only as a reference point to where flooding was likely to occur.

For people on Wheeling Island, one warning wasn't enough, said Sebastian. "There was one flood prediction the night before the flood, and people moved everything up from their basement to the first floor - something they do whenever they receive a flood prediction," she said. "But then the prediction of water levels increased during the night, when people weren't watching TV or listening to their radio, and the water rose up to the first floor, and people just lost a whole lot."

NWS officials didn't issue a flood warning when the Ohio River swamped Marietta as Ivan's remnants swept through. The river rose 22 feet in 24 hours, catching residents and forecasters alike by surprise. Marietta saw its worst flooding in 40 years. On Thursday night, NWS officials - before more than 100 Marietta citizens, business leaders and city officials - offered reassurance that, next time, warnings would be better.

Ohio has had four federally declared disasters in eight months, and more than 6,000 people have registered for federal assistance, pointed out Mary Woodward, a disaster coordinator with Lutheran Social Services who is secretary of SEODRN. "Volunteers are absolutely needed to rebuild homes before cold weather hits. Some people are still camping in their yards."

Monetary donations can also help SEODRN leaders directly meet the needs of flood survivors, said Woodward and others.

And national faith-based disaster response organizations are fully committed to helping flood survivors in Ohio and West Virginia, said Tom Hazelwood, executive secretary for U.S. disaster response for the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR). "People tend to want to go where they see disaster footage on their TV, but UMCOR is not media-driven. Our commitment is to allocate resources to disaster survivors - whether those survivors are in the headlines or not."

UMCOR is scheduled to provide case management training in Ohio next week.

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance also has a long history of helping with flood response in both Ohio and West Virginia.

And SEODRN leaders have pledged to continue to work closely - and to work across faith lines - to help people recover. "This is a good time for the faith community to pull together to do something good," said Wilson.

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