Winter looms for flooded town

Families affected by this fall's floods are wondering how to stay warm.

BY HEATHER MOYER | ETNA, Pa. | December 17, 2004

"We have about 10 to 20 regular volunteers working here to staff the phones."

—Patty Bontempo

With a cold winter descending over Pittsburgh, families affected by this fall's devastating floods are wondering how to stay warm.

When the remnants of Hurricane Ivan drenched western Pennsylvania in September, hundreds of families in the borough of Etna watched helplessly as floodwaters roared through their homes. Many lost everything, and many more are unable to live in moldy homes. And, since numerous families are still without furnaces, they can't stay keep warm or dry out their homes.

"We still have significant moisture in many of these homes," said Patty Bontempo, member of Etna's First Congregational Church and volunteer for the Etna Team for Neighborhood Assistance (ETNA). ETNA is the interfaith long-term disaster recovery team for the town formed in the wake of Ivan's floods.

"Furnaces are one of our biggest needs right now," added the Rev. Richard Neumann, member of ETNA and pastor of Etna's Emmanuel Lutheran Church. "We're still trying to dry out a lot of homes. We need dehumidifiers for this, too."

But dedicated ETNA volunteers, along with work teams from churches across the region, have made progress. Last Saturday was another of many volunteer workdays. Bontempo said over 50 people showed up to help tear out moldy drywall, install new walls, and paint.

So far, the flood recovery team has done 225 assessments in the community. Bontempo thinks more cases may surface as winter sets in and more families come forward in need of furnaces or drywall work. The remaining cases, along with the potential for more, keep ETNA's call for volunteers a consistent one.

They are also grateful for those who have donated their time and effort so far.

Seated in the ETNA offices - an extra room at Etna's Emmanuel Lutheran Church - Bontempo is surrounded by several volunteers working the phones. "We have about 10 to 20 regular volunteers working here to staff the phones. And the work teams are consistent. There's been a good amount of consistent volunteers, but we'll keep needing more."

Generosity is springing not just from regional volunteer groups. ETNA recently sent out an appeal letter to all alumni of Etna's former high school. "We're getting great response from that," noted Bontempo. "The alumni are being extremely generous with their donations."

Those donations have not only helped ETNA secure furniture and appliances for some families, but they also boosted the team's Christmas toy distribution last weekend.

"We had about 90 families stop by. We probably handed toys out to about 200 kids," said Neumann.

As they paused amid the din of the bustling ETNA office around them, Bontempo and Neumann both expressed concern about the continuing recovery.

"We're overwhelmed by all the generous gifts now, but I'm concerned that after the holidays that may wane," said Bontempo. "I'm worried all this giving is just a holiday thing right now, I hope the spirit of giving continues."

Neumann said many are also worried about spring flooding. "If the streams around here aren't cleaned, we could be back in the same situation again. It wouldn't take much precipitation."

Yet despite their worries, the two also try to focus on the positive. Many damaged businesses in the small downtown section are reopening. More flood families are realizing it is okay to ask for help. And Neumann and Bontempo say while their work through ETNA is challenging at times, the chance to be in a helping role is a gift.

"We get to see miracles," said a smiling Bontempo.

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