Flood victims, assisted by volunteers, retrieve bits, pieces of their lives

Standing in her front yard amid a pile of debris that had been the furnishings and decor of her home before tropical storm Alberto flooded it in early July, Mitzi Marbury Hunter looked for "treasures" she could salvage.

Large items, such as major pieces of furniture and appliances, had already been dealt with, deemed either non-salvageable and placed curbside to be hauled to a dump, or salvageable and set aside to be reclaimed later. By July 30, the home she had shared for five years with her husband, Steve, was stripped down to its building studs, waiting to dry out so new flooring, walls and ceilings could be installed."Drying out" is a patience-trying process. Rain has fallen nearly every day since Alberto. Then on Aug. 16 another tropical storm, Beryl, blew in from the Gulf of Mexico, across Florida's panhandle and hurtled rain almost horizontally through much of southwest Georgia. As of Aug. 24, Sister Hunter and many other victims of Alberto were still waiting for a break in the rains.

Sister Hunter expressed hope that the rains will cease in time for her house to dry out before some 500 LDS volunteers arrive from throughout the southeastern U.S. on Labor Day weekend. Many of those volunteers are skilled in carpentry and other building crafts and will work specifically to install new floors, hang sheetrock and put up new ceilings in some homes that need such work.

The volunteers will swell the ranks of those who already have helped flood victims. About 450 LDS volunteers from throughout Georgia and surrounding states came on July 15-17; an impressive 6,000 worked over Pioneer Day weekend, July 22-24; and about 700 came on July 29-30. As a steady stream, Church members have trickled into the flooded areas, as parts of groups or individually, almost every day since the flood hit. (See Church News of July 16, 23 and 30.)

The media have reported the work of these volunteers, focusing mostly on the "heavy-duty" physical work done primarily by men, that of hauling out water-damaged furniture and tearing out sheetrock, insulation and floor boards.

After the volunteers stripped her home, Sister Hunter began looking for those bits and pieces of life nearly every woman treasures: photographs, journals, school memorabilia, letters, and certificates of baptism, graduation, marriage and her babies' births.

Physical and financial damage caused by Alberto can be tallied (31 people were killed, 24,000 homes were evacuated in the Albany area, and 300,000 acres of farmland were under water). Damage estimate is about $1 billion. Thirty-five LDS families are among those whose homes were damaged.

What can't be calculated or even adequately described are the below-the-surface emotions of people like Mitzi Hunter as they try to determine what remains of their homes and contents.

"It didn't bother me much to see all our furniture piled up in the yard," she said, "but I got teary-eyed looking at our children's toys. (The Hunters have two daughters, Katie, 5, and Keri, 3.) I didn't cry over the big things we lost, but I did over the little things. I had saved everything - the children's first toys, their first shoes, their first clothes. Those held memories of our daughters' babyhood. Those things are all gone. I realize that these things, by themselves, aren't important. An item is just an item - until it's attached to some memories."

During her treasure hunt, Sister Hunter retrieved a little cross-stitch item she had been making for Katie. It was nearly completed, lacking only a few stitches. She held up the stained handiwork and asked a friend, "Can this be cleaned and saved?" The friend told her she thought it was worth trying to salvage. Sister Hunter said she relied heavily on the comforting presence of friends, family and fellow Church members.

In speaking of service rendered by volunteers, Bell Geise Usry, Columbus Georgia Stake Relief Society president, acknowledged physical help was greatly needed and appreciated. "But in talking with the sisters, it seems that they all eventually get around to telling me that the greatest need of all is compassion," Sister Usry noted.

"Kay Webb (of the Albany Ward) told me that a woman needs another woman to be there with her when she first goes back to her house and sees the devastation. She said the men just throw out everything. She had her son retrieve some needlepoint from the heap of debris. I don't think she was criticizing the brethren who hauled debris out of her home. She was pointing out that only another woman would appreciate the loss of the components of the home she made. Only another sister could come close to understanding the loss of little things the children made, their early school papers, photograph albums, pictures of loved ones no longer living.

"I earnestly believe the sisters are meeting this need for compassion. So many are calling to ask what they can do. So many have expressed to me their concerns about other sisters and have reported with emotion the losses of others."

Attempting to do what is almost impossible - list every service performed by members of the Relief Society - Sister Usry drew up a list of some of the more obvious deeds: In part, they helped register the volunteers who came in to clean up the flood damage, helped unload tractor-trailers of supplies, distributed food to the needy, carried meals to the crews of clean-up volunteers, made phone calls to locate people and find out their condition, provided babysitting, helped clean up at the camps after the volunteers went home, provided storage space for some items people were able to get out before the water came, washed load after load after load of clothes that had been drenched in filthy water, sterilized dishes and cookware and other items that could be salvaged, provided transportation for shelter residents and others, helped on work crews hauling out saturated sheetrock and the mounds of debris which were the interiors of homes and pulled out nails where the sheetrock had been.

Relief Society sisters who are nurses or who have health care training gave tetanus shots and served at first-aid stations, and other sisters helped make the Red Cross shelter at the meetinghouse as comfortable as possible. Sister Usry said: "While the Albany Ward meetinghouse was a Red Cross shelter, local sisters, even some who had themselves been flooded out of their homes, served at the shelter by registering residents, serving meals brought in by the Red Cross, preparing food on occasion when it seemed the Red Cross wasn't coming, washing dishes, cleaning up the kitchen, setting up cots, bringing in linens to be used by residents, washing those linens and bringing them back to be used again, answering the phone, organizing crafts and movies for children at the shelter, and cleaning the bathrooms."

Sister Usry added: "Some turned their homes into shelters for their extended families and their neighbors. Some employed in health care and city offices worked round the clock on their jobs. One sister, Cora Brettel, designated by the stake president and well-known in the community, has attended meetings with area churches in which they coordinated relief efforts. Some sisters helped deliver meals prepared by other churches. So far as I know, there was much unity and helpfulness in these dealings.

"I'm confident that at least 200 sisters have volunteered time in doing the various things listed above. This is from the Albany Ward alone. Relief Society presidents in other units of the stake have called me to ask how they can help.

"It is estimated by a sister who was at the shelter most of the time during its 13 days in operation that at least 1,000 hours were given there by the sisters. I don't feel I can even guess how many hours have been given by sisters in flood-related service outside the shelter. That work continues and will continue for some time."

Sister Usry added: "It seems that the sisters here have anxiously sought out needs and done their very best to meet them. They have wept with each other, worked side by side, cared for each other and for each other's families. They have actually lightened burdens by helping to bear them. The sisters here are living the teachings of our Savior.

"It is a marvelous thing to hear sisters who lost so much offer prayers in Church meetings and thank Heavenly Father for this experience. Much has been taken away materially, but it seems to me that spiritual compensation is being made.

"I have seen the sisters doing everything they can to help each other and anxiously seeking to know what else they can do. It is humbling to be among them. I know there is yet much, much work to do. I am confident that the sisters will not abandon the effort to help each other have again clean and comfortable homes. They have been in this work from the beginning and will be in it all the way through, quietly doing what needs to be done.

"The sisters here are a mobilized unit of charity. We won't fail," she declared.

Perhaps no one was more frustrated in the early hours and days of the flooding than Albany Ward Relief Society president Mary Fournier. With her home flooded on one side of the Flint River and most members living on the other side, she worried about the Relief Society sisters in her ward. She moved in with family members to wait out the flood. "I couldn't get across the river," she said. "There wasn't a thing I could do for my Relief Society sisters, except pray for them and talk to some of them on the telephone."

It was nearly two weeks before Sister Fournier could return to her own home, which is located in a neighborhood that is situated in a "bowl" where flood waters washed in with great force and then just stood for days. Unable to physically go about her duties among LDS women, she turned her compassionate nature toward her neighbors.

"One neighbor was really worried about what she would do," Sister Fournier said. "Nearly every day, we would return to see how far the water had receded, but it just stood here. She didn't have anyone to help her clean up after the flood. I kept telling her, `Don't worry. My Church will help you.'

"Words can't describe the feeling I had when this mighty army of Latter-day Saints - 6,000 of them at one time - came into town. I've often wondered about the way the people of the city of Enoch lived. Now, I think I know. I saw love and compassion, kindness and goodness that you wouldn't think are of this world as hundreds of LDS volunteers just descended on us. They came to my house, to my neighbor's house and just worked their way up and down the street and through the town."

Sister Fournier and her husband, Emmanual Fournier Sr., walked through their home, which LDS volunteers had stripped and disinfected. They are waiting for their house to dry out and be "put back together." Sister Fournier measured on the wall the depth of the water that flooded the home, almost to the fireplace mantle. "It was bad," she said. "But I want to tell you that I've gained a whole lot more than I lost. I've been given a glimpse of Zion. That is a great blessing."

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