PA town vows to come back

The sound of pounding hammers drifts out of this historical restaurant while snowflakes drift down outside.

BY HEATHER MOYER | MILLVALE, Pa. | December 15, 2004

"Folks are managing right now, yet I think emotional and spiritual counseling will be needed this winter as more reality sets in."

—Rev. Paul Wrightman

The sound of pounding hammers drifts out of this historical restaurant while snowflakes drift down outside.

Workers are installing new drywall and replacing moldy floorboards. Owner Frank Ruzomberka, 72, is in the midst of it all, pointing to blueprints or helping shift boards into place.

"We started rebuilding this place the day after the water went down," he said during a pause in the clatter.

The Grant Bar and Restaurant isn't the only place facing a rebuild.

In September, remnants from Hurricane Ivan flooded the Pittsburgh borough, affecting hundreds of homes, along with the small town's historic business district. Ruzomberka found some four feet of water in his restaurant.

"We lost everything in here - furniture, cooking equipment," he said, walking through the three spacious main rooms into the kitchen area. "We lost everything in the basement, too, our freezers, the furnace."

He expects federal aid to come in this week, but he didn't want to wait to start rebuilding. With an army of his employees pitching in - unpaid - the team has done everything themselves so far.

"My dishwashers are now laboring with drywall and paint," he laughed. "It took us five weeks to fill up ten dumpsters. We still have one more room to tear out, too. But we're making progress."

To worried residents, Millvale's business district looks desolate these days. Many flooded-out storefronts are boarded up - untouched since the flood - and many jobs have simply been left in limbo.

Residents are struggling to fix their own homes as well. The Rev. George Mendis of Millvale's Christ Lutheran Church is heading the Millvale Assistance Team (MAT). The team - which is still finding families who need to tear out waterlogged walls - is trying to find and assess damage as quickly as possible.

"We don't know how much damage many of them have," said Mendis. Millvale borough employees identified over 400 flood-affected homes. MAT is working with 141 cases to date and receives more each week. Mendis worries that, as time passes, black mold will start infesting homes.

Mendis also worries about the town's emotional state. He spoke of a parishioner who has not been able to live in his family's flood-damaged home since September. A normally stoic and focused man, the parishioner recently surprised Mendis.

"He looked at me and said, 'I've just about had it,'" said Mendis. "I never thought I'd hear that from this guy."

Emotional stress will only increase, agreed the Rev. Paul Wrightman of Millvale's First United Church of Christ. "Folks are managing right now, yet I think emotional and spiritual counseling will be needed this winter as more reality sets in."

MAT leaders said the team needs money and volunteers. Numerous volunteer teams have helped - but more are needed.

"Many of the residents have fulltime jobs and don't have time to focus nonstop on repairing their homes," said Mendis. He said some families have fallen victim to scam artists as well. "It's been a real rough time."

As far as the business district goes, Mendis said he is happy to see some storefronts reopening. But, in the reopened businesses next door to abandoned ones, mold is starting to seep through walls into businesses that have already cleaned up. Others are not seeing the same amount of business they once had.

Joe Dusek, owner of Dusek's Quality Meats, cleaned out his flooded basement and started welcoming customers back a week after the storm. Once a very popular place on Fridays and Saturdays for people region-wide, Dusek said business is not what it was. In the meantime, he is doing what he can to get back on his feet.

"We're still trying to recuperate. We still haven't replaced the furnaces for our store, and I don't think I got hit as bad as the rest of the town. I think most will come back, but it will take a long time."

Down at the Jean-Marc Chatellier's French Bakery, the snowy Tuesday afternoon marked a milestone: the official grand reopening of the small but cherished bakery.

After the floodwater receded in September, Jean-Marc and his wife, Sandy, came to their store to find a total loss. The Chatelliers share Ruzomberka's determination and commitment to Millvale and reconstruction.

They knew they had to reopen in Millvale instead of moving on. Sandy Chatellier told a story of one local volunteer who helped clean the bakery's basement. "We asked him how we could repay him for his help, and he said, 'Stay in Millvale.' "

A generous outpouring of volunteer support came to the Chatelliers as they rebuilt. In a flier mailed and handed out to residents upon reopening, the family thanked the townspeople for all their help. "The community really wanted us back," said Sandy. "We're thankful to all who helped us. Without them, we wouldn't be here."

Community spirit pours out of Millvale's business district despite the hardships. Back over at the Grant Bar and Restaurant, Ruzomberka knows how crucial reopening his family's 71-year-old business is to Millvale.

"People from the whole Pittsburgh area used to come in here," reflected Ruzomberka as he paused for a moment among the piles of tools and lumber in the main dining room.

"It's the type of place where everybody knows and remembers you. The same staff has worked here for years. This type of business is not around much anymore, that's why we want to come back. We're here for good."

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