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'We are so blessed'

As water rose outside the house in this small PA town, Harold Herr and his son tried to move things to higher places.

BY HEATHER MOYER | HARMONY, Pa. | December 29, 2004

"Some people were used to flooded basements, but nothing like this."

—Sue Casker

As water pooled and quickly rose outside the house, Harold Herr and his son tried to move the most important things to higher places inside.

"I was walking down into the basement when the windows down there broke and water came pouring in," explained Herr. "I'll never forget that sound. It sounded like Niagara Falls."

The normally docile creek running through the small town of Harmony, in northwestern Pa., became a roaring river in late September. Heavy downpours from Hurricane Ivan forced the creek from its banks and into homes and businesses across town.

Herr said he and his son continued to move furniture until the water was knee-high. "That's when I knew it was time to go."

And like so many others in Harmony, their place of refuge became Grace Church. Situated on a hill in the middle of town, it was an ideal location for people to gather.

"One of our church members saw folks gathered under the awning and decided to make them all a pot of coffee and let them in," explained Sue Casker. "And that's how it all started."

Casker is now one of the busy workers of the Harmony-Zelienople Long-Term Relief Committee (HZLTRC). So far, over 110 families have registered with the committee for assistance after one of the worst floods the town has ever seen. "Some people were used to flooded basements, but nothing like this," she said.

Responders are just now switching their focus to the long-term. Casker said the committee would hire one caseworker and ask for many other volunteer caseworkers to come forward.

Affected families in Harmony and Zelienople are in various stages of recovery. Some expect to have their homes repaired enough to live in by the end of January. Others have not started repairs, said Casker, because they are waiting to hear about federal aid.

Herr, 70, thinks he and his wife should be able to move back in around early February. He credits the generous support from his neighbors and other volunteers in helping him put down new floors and install new drywall. "The community and the church have been unbelievable. We are so blessed," he said.

He lost many antiques in his basement and much of his furniture on the ground floor, but Herr said he is still grateful. "We've got our health and no one got hurt, so we're fine. Property is not the important thing."

He laughed and added, "People are still calling and saying, 'What do you need most?' And I just say I'd like to be about 20 years younger!"

Just down the street, Dave Geist shares Herr's appreciation of generous volunteers. Standing in his almost finished kitchen, he glanced around the newly hung cabinets. "We bought those cabinets, but volunteers put them up, and all the tools laying around in here are ones the volunteers keep here.

"We were often outnumbered in here by people we didn't know! The community really pulled together."

Casker agreed. "It's still happening. People are still calling our office to offer things, and that's God putting things together."

Floodwater inundated Harmony's small downtown business district as well, and most of the stores have not reopened. JoAnn Finch ran a craft store in one of the historic buildings right next to the creek.

"My basement was full of water and then I had over four feet on the first floor," she explained. "I had no clue the water was going to be that high. I thought we'd be okay."

Finch said the Friday the flood happened, she went home in the evening thinking just that. The next morning she got a call from her daughter-in-law. "She asked if I had checked my store yet. I said no, and she said the water was roaring through the stores downtown like a river."

Her store and almost all of the merchandise inside was a loss. She estimates her losses in the store total in the high tens-of-thousands of dollars.

Right now, she is a running a shell of her former store at a nearby storefront that was unaffected, yet there isn't much to sell. She also does not know what's going to happen in the New Year. Finch rented the building her store was in. Nothing has been done yet to repair it because the family who owns it also owns several other downtown buildings and businesses.

"I'm not sure if I'll be able to open another store because only loans are available to me. I also don't have a place to reopen yet. It's looking very doubtful, let's put it that way."

At Finch's store, some merchandise and furniture is still piled in various rooms. Black mold and water lines are visible on the walls. In one room, all of her business files and paperwork lay out to dry.

Yet Finch is also able to see positive. Her house escaped damage. "This whole process still had to be easier on me than on those whose homes were flooded. I at least could come home after each day of trying to clean out the store."

She and her fellow downtown business owners are also able to find some humor in the aftermath. Some of the debris the close-knit group found made them laugh. Finch recalls that they found an old Barbie doll sitting upright in the back of her friend's truck, almost as if to say, "Here I am."

As Finch and the group laughed about it, a local television reporter asked her how she could be in such good spirits after such devastation. "I said you have to be able to laugh and find some humor. It doesn't do you any good to cry or be angry. I also told her that women are tough because, look, there's Barbie, she made it through - and you don't see Ken around here at all, do you?"

That community spirit is inspiring the recovery committee, said Casker. The group is seeking out representatives from area churches not only to assist in the current recovery, but to also be a team ready for the next flood.

HZLTRC's upcoming tasks are to hold a caseworker training run by the Western Pennsylvania United Methodist Disaster Response. The group is also focusing on getting information out to the affected families. Casker expects the need for rebuild volunteers to come in the spring and summer.

Harmony and Zelienople were not the only towns hit hard by September flooding. Across Butler County, families are recovering. Tom Franz, an outreach worker for the Center for Community Resources, a Butler County nonprofit organization, said he and his agency have been doing outreach to these families for two months now. He also helps run the Butler County Flood Relief Project.

"We're making ourselves available to everyone," said Franz. "We are using federal funding provided to us to help with counseling. We offer a compassionate presence.

"In the families, you see the whole spectrum of emotions right now. There's stress about the holidays, and the lack of funds. There is still an incredible sense of loss and grief. This recovery will take a while."

Yet overall, Franz said the people of Harmony, Zelienople and all of Butler County are strong and resilient. He hopes all the recovery committees will have a lasting impact on the communities they help.

"Our goal is that all the communities that experienced this will learn from it and be stronger," he said.

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