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NH town copes with damage

Jack Cochrane lost his home to a raging river and mudslide on Sunday.

BY HEATHER MOYER | ALSTEAD, N.H. | October 13, 2005

"We've had many churches calling in with help."

—Rev. Janice Howe

Jack Cochrane lost his home to a raging river and mudslide on Sunday. He almost lost his life, too.

"I really do thank the Lord that the police officer knocked on my door, I would've been dead otherwise," said Cochrane. Only minutes before the slide, a police officer came to tell him to evacuate as soon as possible.

Thursday afternoon, Cochrane sat in the basement of Third Congregational Church in Alstead eating lunch with some fellow residents. He took a moment to sketch a before and after drawing of his home on a napkin.

"I had a stream, a wall, and a hill behind my home," he explained, pointing to a few small squares on the napkin. "And now all that's left is just rocks and mud."

Cochrane is not alone in his loss. As many as 15 to 20 other homes were completely wiped out when torrential rains deluged the small southwestern New Hampshire town over the weekend. A culvert at the north end of town backed up with debris and then failed, sending a wall of water rushing through the center of town.

"I've never seen flooding like that before," said Dorothy Campbell, a resident of the community for 87 years. "There's been some spring flooding before, but nothing that's ever washed everything out."

To help those residents whose homes were damaged or destroyed, the Third Congregational Church opened its doors to feed and support anyone in need. Stacks of fruit and snacks lined tables. Thursday afternoon saw several residents and local police officers grateful for the church's generosity.

"We've had many churches calling in with help," said the Rev. Janice Howe, pastor of Third Congregational Church. "People just want to help."

She added that the United Church of Christ Disaster Ministries office sent funds, as did the New Hampshire Conference of the United Church of Christ. As Howe spoke, several people showed up with more donations. One family with kids brought in trays of brownies. Another woman asked where she could donate money.

That generosity, Howe said, is helping the church to focus more on the personal needs of affected residents.

Across the street from the church are two homes that look almost normal from the front. Around back is a different story, however. The ground is washed away along the bank of the river, leaving sagging and splintered boards and gaps where the foundations used to sit. Further down the river a home leaned precariously over the edge of the river, the bank washed away beneath much of it.

Some residents worry about rebuilding because even their land was washed away.

Now community officials and police are telling residents to not drink the water because of all the contamination. When the flood roared through, sewage, gas, oil, propane and more went into the water as well.

"Most everybody in town has wells," said Myrna Harrington of Third Congregational Church.

At the church, crates of bottled water sit ready for the taking. Rev. Howe is taking a moment to sit still for once. Having just gone to sit with residents who lost family members, Howe said one good spot is that the community is so close-knit.

"It helps that I've been here for 11 years, there's a familiarity," she explained. "The whole area is like that. Some communities had no home damage, but are affected because they have friends and family who were."

Those close ties have everybody pitching in some form of help. Earlier in the day Howe took a call from a friend whose kids and kids' friends sat outside local grocery stores raising money for the affected families. In one day the kids raised more than $2,200.

"Others want to adopt families who are in need," said Howe. "People want to be able to do something when disasters happen. There's not much locals can do here now because they've been warned about cleaning up the contaminated debris."

Howe said she's also keeping abreast of everyone's spiritual and emotional state. She said most are doing remarkably well. Others are angry.

To help the entire community cope with the devastation and loss, this Sunday at Third Congregational will be a service of prayer and unity. "All are welcome," said Howe, who added that it will most likely include time for everyone to share if they want.

For residents, the consistent "open door" at Third Congregational is one of few consistent aspects of their lives at this point.

"Come back and see us," Howe said to Cochrane as he left for the day.

"I will try," answered Cochrane. "But I'm not too sure what the future holds right now."

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