Over 4th of July weekend 30 students from Veritas went to Cedar Rapids, Iowa to help out with flood relief. I was excited for the trip, but the impact it had on us and on the people we met up there was more than I could have thought or asked for. Parts of the city are absolutely devastated, but amid all the disaster we saw so many things to be thankful for.
When we arrived we got a short orientation on the hazards of working in a flood zone and how to use all the supplies we would need, then immediately dived into work. We went to Dave and Starla Smiths home. Dave and Starla had been working on rebuilding since they were able to return to their home after the flood waters receded, and a lot of the nasty work was already done. The guts of their house were pulled out and separated into piles on the street. I heard that in the first week after the flood those piles were higher than the cars and every direction you looked in the worst affected neighborhoods the streets looked like they were lined with trash walls. Within a minute of our arrival one of the Smith’s neighbors walked out and met some people from our group and got around to asking if we could gut her house while we were in the neighborhood. We had lots of people eager to do something, so we agreed. The rest of the afternoon we worked in the two houses across the street from one another, pulling down drywall, insulation, and the accumulated possessions of the two homes and shoveling them into trash bins to be thrown on the curb.
Around dinner time we packed up, said our goodbyes and went back to the car dealership where we were staying. Karen Mickey, a former member of The Crossing who lives in Cedar Rapids, is the owner of a Volkswagen dealership, which she opened to house our team. That’s the place we came “home” to each night to rest, shower, eat, and spend time together as a team. We were not the only occupants she had opened the dealership to – there was a professional disaster relief organization using the dealership as a warehouse to store their supplies who, after the first day, came to us and let us know that we should feel free to use all of their supplies for whatever we needed free of charge.
Day two brought some nastier work. We went to an area of town known as Czech Village to help clean up some businesses along the main street. When we got there the owner of the businesses, Jon, gave us a crash course in Czech Village history. His love for his community was evident and infectious and helped give us a deeper vision for what we were really doing and the impact that it was having on the surrounding community. Jon’s exuberance and thankfulness overflowed during the two days we spent with him. He was constantly stopping us to thank us, getting us to take pictures with him, and telling us what a great thing we were doing.
During the second half of day two we went to a church in one of the worst affected areas in the city, a neighborhood known as Time Check. The church was so busy helping its congregation that no one helped the church. When we arrived it was basically untouched except that someone had removed the pews. The walls were covered in mold and the building stank. The basement was even worse off. The floor was covered in two inches of black, slick mud. I think we were a little overwhelmed at first, but then put our masks and jumpsuits on and got to work. It was easier to just put our heads down and work and not think about the devastation we were moving through. It was easier to simplify our time there down to a single shovelful of sludge at a time, and not think about how the church would ever rebuild or the long process of recovery for the whole community.
Day three brought the hardest work of the whole trip. We drove 30 minutes out of the city to a house that had not even been entered until we got there. It was in a floodplain within eyeshot of a river and was built on stilts. The people in that little community were used to floods, but this one was worse than anything they had ever seen. Even on 10 feet of stilts the water rose high enough to cover everything but the roof. The smell of rot and mold assaulted us as we opened the door. For the next seven hours we threw Tom and Renee’s (the owners of the house) possessions out of the front door and straight into the dump truck waiting below. The house was too small for the whole team to work in simultaneously, so we had a lot of time to wait outside and talk with Tom and Renee. As their story came out of them it cast what we were doing in a different light. Tom and Renee live on very little. Tom built the house with his own hands, every step of the process from digging the postholes for the stilts by hand to building on each additions paycheck by paycheck. It was a process that had taken them six years and before the flood came all they had left to do was spackle the ceiling in the second room and then at last it would be done. I wonder what it was like, given that he drove every nail himself, to see us tossing his drywall out of his front door, or hear the sounds of banging and kicking coming from inside all day. They told their story over and over to people who would approach them and they cried often, but it wasn’t the sadness of their situation that made them cry. It was the fact that we had come there to help them. They were blown away by it. They didn’t know what to say. Tom told me that before we came he had almost given up on ever entering the house again. He had thought of simply letting the contract on the land expire and moving somewhere else, abandoning the house he had built, but, looking at the inside of his house as we were packing up he said that now they had a chance to return. When we arrived that morning all their possessions were piled in the center of the house, looking as though they had been torn up inside a blender and covered with the same black sludge we had seen in the basement – everything was slick and stinky with it. By the time we left the floor was cleared down to the plywood and the walls were stripped to the studs. All the foul smelling ruins that had become of all their things had been carted to a dumping site. We took a picture together and went home.
The final day most people went back to Czech Village to help them clean up for a rally they were having the following Tuesday, and some people stayed behind at the dealership to clean it up too, but I had the unique privilege of going to Wal-Mart, Home Depot and a number of other stores and spending the money The Crossing sent us up there to distribute ($6,500) to buy gifts for people we helped that weekend. The day before we had put our heads together to brainstorm what would be the best gifts. To Dave and Starla we gave a gift certificate to Sears (Dave runs a small motor business out of his garage and many of his tools were destroyed), a new mattress, as well as money to Wal-Mart for them to use on food and essentials while they put their lives back together. To Jon (who had been so generous with outfitting us out of his own pocket for the supplies we needed to work while we were with him), we gave $1,000 to pay for more supplies that he would need to rebuild. It was just a fraction of the money it is going to take to put the business back together, but it is still something. To the congregation of the church we helped, we gave $50 gift certificates to Wal-Mart to every member of the congregation. Tom and Renee said that what they needed most was money for food and gas, so we gave them $600 to Wal-Mart as well as $300 to Home Depot to pay for a new deep freeze (Tom hunts some of their food and had a freezer full of all the meat they were planning on living on over the winter). When we came back and delivered the gifts, they didn’t know what to say other than “thank you” over and over.
For more on this story, visit the Missourian website.
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