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'Hit with 5 floods in the last year'

At first, the walls of Sheila Knott's home look like something from a carnival funhouse.

BY HEATHER MOYER | GLOUSTER, Ohio | January 28, 2005

"We put everything we had into this house, and now it's gone."

—Sheila Knott

At first glance, the walls of Sheila Knott's home look like something out of a carnival funhouse.

But Knott's eyes fill with tears as she wonders aloud whether her flood-damaged home can be fixed.

Wood paneling on the walls is grossly warped, and a closer inspection reveals heavy mold infestation. Part of the ceiling in one bedroom has collapsed, and floors are bowed. The damage was caused by a series of floods over 2004 into January 2005.

"I'd lived here for six years and didn't get flooded in those first five years," said Knott, who lived in the home with her husband and three children. "Then we got hit with five floods in the last year."

Unable to stay in the home due to structural issues and mold - which have only gotten worse as the rains and flooding kept moving through - Knott and her family now live in a rental property in a nearby town. She said they have no idea if they will be able to move back into the home. That notion, combined with knowing that she and her family spent five years remodeling the old home, is what breaks Knott's heart, she said.

"I don't know if the home can be fixed at this point," a teary Knott explained while standing on the front porch. "We put everything we had into this house, and now it's gone. We can't afford to do it again."

Knott is receiving help - and hope - from the Southeast Ohio Disaster Relief Network (SEODRN) in the form of rental assistance. The long-term recovery committee hopes to repair her home this spring or summer. In the meantime, the group does what it can to keep Knott's family housed in an apartment.

Ken Willie, case manager for the Athens County chapter of SEODRN, said many families along the rural and oft-flooded Route 13 area of the county have moved on after all the floods. "I've been keeping track as time passes," said the long-time area resident. "I think about 108 families or so have just packed up and moved on in the past year."

As Willie drove down several roads in the small towns of Trimble and Glouster on a frigid Thursday afternoon, he pointed to several neighborhoods. "This street is mostly abandoned - so is this one." He added that several local business owners have noticed a change in the number of clients they see each day.

Last year was full of disaster for southeast Ohio. Flooding ravaged the region in January, several times in the spring, and in late summer and early fall hurricanes drenched the area as well. Heavy snow and ice hit the area in December and then an early thaw brought flooding back again. Then much of the floodwater froze as temperatures dropped once again.

Willie said he's still handling cases from every single flood. He and SEODRN chair Mary Woodward are currently working to get the Athens County chapter of SEODRN on its feet so families can start getting the assistance required to get their homes back in livable condition.

Many of the region's families are still living in unsafe homes. Mold is creeping up the walls and walls are buckling from water damage. Southeast Ohio is home to the poorest counties in the state, and many of the impoverished families cannot afford to move away or even live in a safe home until theirs is repaired.

"Housing always has been and most likely always will be a problem in Athens County," explained Woodward.

Ralph Gardner understands that. His Glouster home is slowly sinking. Built on short pillars, he's noticed different sections of the home drop over time as floods continue to hit his property. "I've lived here 30 years and I've been flooded many times," he said, glancing at his home from the front yard. "That makes me want to move, but I just can't afford to."

Gardner is also concerned about another factor: the hill behind his home. As each flood comes, more and more of the hillside slides down into the back of his home. It's only a matter of time until the road atop the hill comes crashing down as well, he said.

In the meantime, Gardner spends his time leveling the floor of his home as best he can. "I've replaced the flooring multiple times, but there's no doubt in my mind that (the flooding) will happen again."

Later that same Thursday, Willie, Woodward, Knott and Gardner gather in an old church building to discuss the new SEODRN chapter. Still early in its formation, Willie said it has been a challenge thus far getting local clergy involved. The group is scraping together interested residents as it can. "Most people who attend our meetings are victims themselves," added Willie, whose own home also flooded several times in 2004.

Athens County towns hit hard over 2004 include Trimble, Glouster, Chauncey and many others. This most recent round of January floods hit Chauncey again very hard, said Willie.

There are some bright points in the struggles of the Athens County SEODRN chapter, though. More county officials are expressing an interest in becoming involved in the recovery process. The chapter has an office in an old church Willie recently bought. He's also been making contact with volunteers across the country interested in helping the families do home repairs this summer and spring.

The group's leaders are trying to balance the positive with the negative, and they are doing all they can to make sure the needs of the community are publicized. Chapter members are seeking local facilities that would be able to house upcoming volunteer groups.

Willie is only a part-time caseworker at this point, and Woodward said that certainly isn't due to a lack of cases, but rather to a lack of funding to make the position full-time.

Other needs for the affected families include appliances such as refrigerators, gas stoves and freezers. Furniture is also more than welcome, said Woodward.

Right now, the small team making up the Athens County chapter of SEODRN is hoping the bad weather clears for the area for a while. They hope their luck takes a turn for the better this year.

"It's sure been a weird year, I really thought that once we hit January the floods would quit, but I sure was wrong," he laughed. "I just wish I could hit the big lottery so I could come in here and help all these folks out."

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