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NH town stays strong post-flood

"I think the spirit has really changed around here - the community is closer now."

BY HEATHER MOYER | ALSTEAD, N.H. | November 22, 2005

"I think the spirit has really changed around here - the community is closer now."

Those are the words from the Rev. Janice Howe, pastor of Third Congregational Church, a month after flooding devastated the small southwestern New Hampshire town of Alstead. More than 20 homes were destroyed. Many others suffered severe damage.

But Howe said the experience has brought the community together, with neighbors helping each other clean up and chipping in to help pay people's bills. "There's a real feeling of loss here, even for those who didn't lose their homes because of how the community has changed," she explained.

Third Congregational Church and its members are taking one of the lead roles in the disaster recovery, working closely with the town of Alstead and other local community partners. Howe said thanks to generous donations from people all over the country, the church just sent out a total of $32,000 to some 78 affected families. But that amount is a drop in the bucket at this point, she added, noting that more families are coming forward for help now as well.

"That amount of money may sound great, but the loss here was in the millions," said Howe. "We're still addressing short term needs. We're trying to make people realize that there are long term needs, ongoing needs. The governor said it may take two years for this area to recover."

Volunteers have poured into the area as well, with some removing debris and others - like teams from Southern Baptist Disaster Response - ripping out soggy drywall.

As the holidays approach, Howe and Third Congregational are doing all they can to help families have as regular a season as possible. With funds being short and other needs taking precedence for the families, donations are allowing Third Congregational to buy Christmas gifts for families.

"Anything we can do to help them save their money to pay their bills, we'll do," she said. Local businesses and churches are also calling Howe to ask about adopting a family for the holiday season.

Some families have turned away the help, saying others need it more than they do - but Howe said she takes time to remind people about being able to receive. "We always talk about loving and doing things for others, but part of that love is receiving. Normally we give, and now some of us must be able to receive."

For the rest of us, she added, the need to give to the recovery process will last for some time. Monetary donations are the best way to help, said Howe, as families will need the money to repair, rebuild or to put a deposit on an apartment to live in in the meantime.

Howe also hopes that volunteers will continue being interested in the town months down the road. "I hope they will continue to come for a long time, especially a year from now when people still need work done on their homes."

Other issues linger as well - one of which Third Congregational is facing itself. When the floodwater roared through Alstead, many wells were contaminated by the wastewater that came with it. Howe said the church will most likely need a new well, which can cost anywhere from $5,000 to $11,000.

For the long term emotional and spiritual effects, Howe has not seen many surface just yet. The church's attendance has grown in the weeks since the flood, with many residents saying they just felt like they needed to go to the service to be with people, said Howe.

"I think faith-wise, those affected have been strong enough to not let this get them down," she explained. "The others see that and stay strong, too."

The local school districts have done an excellent job addressing the impact on the children, she added. One local teacher had children draw pictures and tell their stories to help cope with the emotions, a process which Howe said she heard had been successful. Howe said the children at Third Congregational Church did a similar activity, eventually turning the stories and pictures into a booklet.

As more issues come to the forefront, Howe emphasized that her church's continued cooperation with town officials and other local community organizations will both help find families who are still in need, as well as avoid duplication of services.

"We're all sharing information - which has been very helpful."

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