Water marks fade but flood losses linger


More than 30 years ago, doctors told cancer-stricken Frank Workman he wasn't expected to live. They told his wife -- who broke her back in a bad fall 15 years ago -- she would be bedridden the rest of her life.

But this retired couple has been too busy rebuilding people's lives in North Carolina to listen to the doctors. And flood survivors here in Wayne County are plenty glad they didn't.

Frank Workman is construction supervisor for a 16-member Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC) volunteer team that is repairing homes damaged by Hurricane Floyd in September 1999. Gertrude, his wife who now walks with the aid of two canes, travels with him and listens to the stories of survival that pour from the homeowners her husband helps.

In an age when people are urged to save enough to live comfortably, why would this couple sell their home, live in an RV year round, and swing a hammer in all kinds of weather? "Because the Lord has blessed us," said Frank. "We were obviously allowed to live for a reason."

Plus he loves a challenge, he admits. "You never really know what you're getting into until you start tearing a house apart."

The couple has visited many flood-stricken communities since Hurricane Floyd slammed North Carolina 20 months ago. Today what concerns them most is that nobody seems to realize how much still needs to be done.

"When we tell people what we're doing, they say, 'you're still working that?!'" said Gertrude.

Frank said, with severe flooding, many problems -- including mold, rotting floors and walls, roof damage, and even post-traumatic stress -- commonly don't develop until two years later.

By then people are afraid to ask for help, he said. "We went to a mobile home where the floors were crumbling, and the family had just put plywood over the floors. They said, 'We don't need help. This will do.'"

The Workmans found out about local needs in this county through the Wayne County Long Term Recovery Organization, an interfaith group developed to help more than 2,000 county residents affected by flooding. Since forming a few months after the hurricane struck, the organization has offered referrals and guidance to more than 400 families. It has helped more than 200 families repair or rebuild their homes.

Today, Wayne County Recovery still has 50 families that are considered active cases in need of help, said Barbara Stiles, director.

Many people who never applied for Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance are just now realizing they can't afford to fix the flood-related problems that have surfaced and grown, she said.

After CRWRC teams went door-to-door to check on home damages, leaving informational flyers behind, "one man called and said all he needed was a comforter," said Stiles. "But when a caseworker visited the house, it turned out the elderly man and his wife had been sleeping on their couch for a year. They'd had to throw away their bed and almost all of their other furniture."

Volunteer teams replaced linoleum and carpeting, and Wayne County Recovery partners helped supply furniture and other household items. "He would call us on the phone after that just to say 'God bless you,'" said Stiles.

It's more than just home repairs that take place, she said. Repairs to the heart and spirit are made as well. Stiles tells the story of a schoolteacher in her 50s who had never married. She lived with her mother in a turn-of-the-century house that was badly damaged by flooding. Six months after the flood, her mother died. But the schoolteacher didn't fix anything.

"Her mom's shoes were still in the same place. She hadn't done a thing. She felt like she had no purpose," said Stiles. But after volunteer teams repaired some of the damage and started repainting the house, the woman's life began to change. "She was in there painting. We were between volunteer teams and by the time we got a group back in there, she had painted two rooms herself. Until then, she saw herself as only a schoolteacher and her mother's caretaker."

Seeing people's spirits restored is what keeps volunteers like the Workmans coming back. "It is a blessing to see people's attitudes when you first come. They go from way down, and every day they're brought a little bit more up," said Gertrude.

Volunteers also go through a transformation, said Gerben and Charlene Vanderveen, another couple volunteering through CRWRC. For nine years, the Vanderveens have been frequently hitting the road to help disaster survivors.

When city codes don't permit them to stay in their RV, they stay in whatever space they can arrange ahead of time. "Once we had to build our own bunk beds out of 4-by-4s and 2-by-4s," said Charlene. "In another place we had to set buckets all over the place to catch the rainwater. The nicest place we stayed, I remember, was an old hotel in Grand Forks that had been half shut because of flood damage."

Adventuresome as their lives are, volunteers like the Workmans and the Vanderveens don't just show up spontaneously at a disaster site. They carefully research the need by communicating with responding groups. Then they supply their own housing, food, and tools. They also train new volunteers by pairing seasoned workers with new ones. A typical volunteer stint lasts for about three weeks.

It's hard work but rewarding enough for these couples to completely alter their lifestyle in order to do it. "We used to make plans for our life," said Frank.

"But we don't do that anymore -- it never works," said Gertrude, and her husband added, "We go wherever the Lord sends us next."

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