Tuesday, July 08, 2008
“…When the Levee Breaks – I Got No Place To Stay.” – Led Zeppelin
“Marco Pollo – where have you been Evil Chicken?” Ah Gentle Reader, yet again I am impressed with your line of questioning and reason. I’ve been out of town, so to speak, and have not been able to keep you apprised of things as of late. Please forgive me. I hope that this little blog will answer any questions you may (or may not have had) over the course of this past week.
As it turns out a group from my church flew out to Columbus, Indiana to assist the Billy Graham Association and Samaritan’s Purse with the cleanup from the flooding that hit the area. Columbus, Indiana was hit by freak floods that left two dead (that number could have been so much higher), 2,100 households affected and 47 of those homes (and that is a low number) are scheduled to be bulldozed. Since the area was in a “500 year floodplain” 95% of those affected did not have flood insurance. Everything they had is just gone – piles of furniture, photos, memorabilia, heirlooms - gone; just piles of mud covered garbage on the corner of drying property remain. Billy Graham Association (http://www.billygraham.org/) and Samaritan’s Purse (http://www.samaritan.org/) responded immediately. The team from my church (our team) were replacement chaplains for ones that were at Columbus the week before. When we leave, we may be replaced as well, although they might deploy teams to Iowa instead of Indiana. We’ll see.
We flew into Indianapolis International Airport on 6/30/08, rented a couple of cars and headed southward to Columbus. We met out BGA site leader who was staying at the mobile office (a fifth wheel) parked at another church across town. He was a practical man who gave the team some good advice by telling us that we were not there to proselytize or to push any particular doctrine – our job is to “love onto anybody who needs it.” He explained that flexibility is key and that good listening skills were a must. “Don’t assume that you know what these people are going through even if you have been through a flood – this situation is unique and highly individualized.” This was my first time being a part of a Rapid Response Team but even I know good advice when I hear it.
We stayed in the basement of the Free Methodist Church of Columbus and our days were spent out in the community. We were housed with SPs (Samaritan’s Purse) and shared breakfast with them each morning before starting our day. There were two southern women in that church kitchen who knew what they were doing – believe me, everything is better with biscuits, sausage gravy and grits. Those with gray shirts went to their worksites and those with blue shirts went to communities. We would rendezvous for lunch at various worksites and deliver food for SPs and people working on their homes and dinners were either back at the church or we’d grab something in the community. Those ladies in the kitchen were always amazing cooking for about 50 people day in and day out. Did I mention that everything is better with sausage gravy? The Texas Roadhouse, Chik-Fil-A, and White Castle made some pretty amazing contributions to the community while we were there. White Castle provided 100 meals for us to distribute to families who are rebuilding. Providing a meal for someone is a blessing to everyone involved in the process. All we did was deliver the food, but those who provided it and those who enjoyed it deserve to be remembered.
In my mind’s eye several stories are still being sorted out so please forgive the stream of consciousness that you are about to read. I won’t include names – only stories. It is a bit of a blur. From 7/1/08 – 7/6/08, we spent our days wandering the communities providing a shoulder to cry on, to pray with or simply an ear to listen to their story of where they were when the water came. The six of us would split into teams of 3 or sometimes teams of 2. We carried bottled water with us as well. For many the water came quickly and without warning. There was one woman in her seventies told me that there was a knock at her door – it was her neighbor warning her about the threat. She said that he was standing in ankle deep water when she received the warning – 15 minutes later everything was under 4 feet of water. When it comes to a flood it doesn’t matter if you have two inches or two feet in your living room – once it’s in the damage is done. The black mold is not far behind. People’s crawl spaces and basements flooded leaving nothing but mud and wreckage behind. I saw at least four basement walls that had collapsed leaving the houses that they still precariously straddle, uninhabitable. There was one woman who told us that the insurance agent laughed when she asked about flood insurance – he didn’t think that she needed it. Everything is gone now. I met a man who is about my age; he’s a musician who just put a studio in his basement next to his Star Wars toy and comic collection. “It’s all just… stuff – junk now. I thank God that we got out at all.” The SPs were working at ripping out sheetrock, insulation and setting up fans to make sure that everything is bone dry before the new sheetrock gets tacked up onto the bare studs that the man’s home is now. He has a four year old and his wife is carrying twins. He’s looking forward to getting back into his house to make things ready. She’s due in two months. There was a woman who had been through basic training with the Army 3 times since she’s having a hard time passing her marksmanship. She was home at her father’s house mowing the lawn when she noticed that her feet were getting wet. A tornado had taken down two panels of a stockade fence that she hadn’t replaced so when she saw the three-foot wall of water coming she immediately went into the house for her truck keys and her dad. The water was thigh high and moving swiftly but they got out. I met a man who was painting a house. He smiled but you could tell that he was hurting. He told us that he was helping out a friend. He said that he didn’t live in the town but that his business was completely destroyed. He is a retired trucker who opened a restaurant up in Flat Rock (anther affected town north of Columbus). His restaurant is full of about a foot and a half of mud. It’s over for him; since it is not a residence FEMA can’t do anything for him. The SBA (Small Business Association) can’t help either due to back taxes that are still owed. We met another man who got out of his trailer just in time to save “Gizmo” his dog. The water was up to his chest as he held onto his dog – they got away, his trailer didn’t. We met a woman in her seventies who had a large group of SPs working under her trailer in Tyvek suits and facemasks. They were scraping, vacuuming and removing large amounts of spray on insulation that, literally, gets everywhere. The woman was so thankful to have the assistance – she was so proud of her grandchildren and thanked us for being there. It was at this house that our team met a young woman who was working with SP; she was a local who was volunteering with them and joined us when we traveled to Third, Fourth and Fifth streets. Her grandmother lives on sixth and the waters didn’t reach her – chances are everything from fifth down will have to be ripped away. The city will probably turn the community into a park when all is said and done; right now it resembles something out of a post-apocalyptic science fiction movie. You can walk right down the middle of the street surrounded on both sides by the flotsam & jetsam of wreckage left behind by the waters and homes that are nothing but shells – everything inside them is gone. There are notices on the doors there, which warn if nothing is done within 30 - 60 days that the city will mow them down. Yellow tape that proclaims, “DO NOT CROSS” can be found wrapped around some properties. Most of the inhabitants are gone but still there are the occasional group of workers or, even more rare, a hold out. We met such a lady there amongst the damage. She and her family live on the second floor of a home that was submerged under about nine feet of water. She was drying out her home with fans. Her father’s scooter was mud covered. I mentioned that Medicaid might be able to assist in getting another one. I told her that if they denied her request to file an appeal immediately. She has her feet dug in but it might be a losing battle to stay. We ran into an old woman in her 80s who had that 1,000 yard stare – the look that says one is still coming to grips with the shape of this new world that is reality now. She was living in her garage. We went over to talk to her. She told us that everything around her was borrowed except the only thing she still owned, her refrigerator, which amazingly still worked. She told us that if it were not for her grandson she would be dead. He came and told her that there was a flood as he moved the car to higher ground. In the time that it took him to move the car the water rose to chest height. She said that she opened a door in her house and her freezer floated into her living room. We prayed with another woman whose trailer had been lost – she’s living with her son for now and is thankful to be alive. We met an old woman who was raking her lawn of debris. Her husband died last year. I took the rake from her and finished her lawn while Danny (our team leader from my church) spoke and prayed with her. He was able to connect her with Samaritan’s Purse too, they’ll be a big help for her in the coming days. We met a young man who wanted us to visit his college; he told us that there were several people affected by the flood there, both faculty and students, so we did. It was there that we met the assistant dean of the school who encouraged us as much as we tried to encourage her. We received a call from some SPs out in the country. They were working on a home deep in a cornfield that stands next to the Flat Rock River. Living here were, “Granny” and one of her sons. Once more these people were more of an encouragement to us than we were to them. They came so close to losing everything but they were so happy and thankful for the work that was being done on their home and in their lives. Granny gleefully told us how happy she was to have her Bible replaced. She then went on to tell us that she still is very happy to go hunting and fishing. Two years ago she bagged two bucks and this past year she landed a 42-pound catfish. Granny is in her eighties. Her son has several physical issues but is content. He told us not to pray for him but to pray for the Church of Christ – we went to pray with him but he prayed for us instead. The smell of bleach was almost unbearable but Granny and her son didn’t seem to mind. We delivered a horse trailer full of sheetrock and insulation to three homes. A church about two hundred miles to the north decided to use their building fund for the flood victims instead of for it’s intended use. It was money well spent. The homeowners could not believe their eyes as we stacked the piles of sheetrock and insulation into their broken homes. There was enough to supply for three houses.
We heard words such as, “It came so fast,” “We just got out with our pets,” or “All we had… is gone,” were recurring themes; as were, “Thank you,” “God is good,” and “Could we pray together?” I remember asking our BGA (Billy Graham Association) site leader about FEMA and if they have changed since Hurricane Katrina. “Yes, they have, but people’s expectations of what they can do and what they actually do are two different things.” If you were a homeowner then FEMA can help by cutting you a check but if you rent then FEMA can’t help. The team from my church spent a lot of time in what was considered at one time, low income. These people didn’t own their homes – they were renters. Why is there suffering? I don’t have an answer for that – it’s way too far beyond me. I can tell you that Jesus asked the same question while hanging from a cross and HE didn’t get an answer either. “It is what it is,” my wife is fond of saying. There’s a lot of wisdom in that response. The bad times shape us, refine us. I once heard a woman say, “You either throw your hands up in surrender or you put up your dukes and fight.” Simplistic? maybe; but words have the taste of truth.
The trip was never about yours truly; “Oh look how wonderful Evil Chicken is!” No. Don’t believe that hype. Trust me… that is simply not the case. It was about being a part of Church of Jesus Christ – being a part of that body; it’s about seeing the hand of God moving in a community. Yes it’s about doing something for those who can’t do for themselves but it’s also about reminding people that they are not alone. The stories and the faces of the people from Columbus, Indiana will always be with me but it’s watching God move in the midst of the destruction that I will always remember.
The community of Columbus, Indiana is healing. They are progressing along through the process of grieving, cleaning up and moving on. There is a general sense that they are ready to do so. Our BGA site leader is moving southward towards Cedar Rapids, Iowa where the levees broke anew. There will be another team of chaplains responding there as well as another army of Samaritan’s Purse workers. My team got back home yesterday afternoon reuniting with our families. I missed them so; but this past week I was exactly where I needed to be.
My thoughts and prayers are with all those affected by the waters rise.