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NV flooding brings town together

Local churches provide focus for response efforts in Nevada city hit by levee break.

BY VICKI DESORMIER | Fernley, NV | January 7, 2008

"I have been amazed to see that everyone is putting everything on hold to help those in need."

—Pastor Paul Theiss, Gift of Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church

Saturday's levee break in Fernley, NV, sent hundreds fleeing from their homes in a two mile area near the Truckee Canal, but the resulting flood brought the community together.

Pastor Paul Theiss of the Gift of Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church in Fernley said he has seen a a new trait emerge in a community with few social ties as residents came together to help those in need.

"We're a boom town. Really, all of Nevada is like that, people come here to work and there are not a lot of roots to the communities here," the pastor said. "It has taken something like this to bring everything together. I have been amazed to see that everyone is putting everything on hold to help those in need."

On Saturday, a 30-foot breach in a levee along the Truckee Canal sent water cascading across a two square mile area, leaving at least 200 homes with severe flooding damage and initially forcing hundreds of people from their homes. Many local residents do not have flood insurance.

The city of about 20,000 residents sits about 30 miles east of Reno. Theiss said it is a fast growing and constantly changing community. He said there is a rich history in the area, but many of the current residents are relative newcomers.

The pastor said most of the 50 or so members of his church, which is located at the crossroads of town, have been to the church to do something or to make a financial donation to help those whose homes were damaged in Saturday's flooding. "Everyone is doing what they can," he said.

Members of other churches are working together with coalitions of volunteers from all walks of life to offer assistance in finding temporary housing, in sorting or distributing material donations and in helping direct people to the appropriate local or federal assistance agencies.

Pastor Matt McCreary of the Living Faith Fellowship in Fernley said there were so many volunteers who wanted to help out that the number of those offering assistance outnumbered those who needed help at the evacuation shelter at the local high school on the first evening following the levee break.

At his church, he has been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support for flood survivors. "Disasters like this have a way of bringing out the best in people," he explained.

Churches in the area are coordinating with city officials to help distribute clothing as quickly as possible as the sub-freezing temperatures in the area have left those who lost their homes or who cannot get back into their homes yet vulnerable to the elements. McCreary said a distribution point will be set up at City Hall, but that some volunteers will be traveling door-to-door in the flood area to make sure those who remained behind will get what they need.

In addition, a great deal of food has been collected by a coalition of local churches, McCreary said. It will be distributed, as it is needed, once the American Red Cross shelters close.

Theiss said that he and other pastors have received many calls from area residents who were not affected by the flood who wanted to offer survivors a place to stay in their homes. McCreary said that a local hotel opened its doors to house those temporarily displaced by the flood. Even nearby Fallon Naval Air Station chipped in, sending helicopters to help lift evacuees from roof tops when the flood waters crashed through the breach in the levee.

"It's very cold (temperatures have been hovering well below freezing for some time) and the danger from exposure to the cold made it very important to rescue people quickly," Theiss said. "The Navy was very quick to respond."

Local, state and federal officials are still assessing the damage, moving from house to house in the flooded areas as quickly as they can, Melissa Sabbotin of the Nevada governor's office said Monday. They are hoping to determine if they can ask for a presidential disaster declaration by Tuesday.

A community meeting, was held Monday night by the city of Fernley to help answer questions from survivors of the flood.

Engineers are still studying the 30 foot break in the structure of the levee to try to determine what caused the breach to occur.

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