‘Helping Hands’ volunteers from 6 states offer help after Michigan flooding

After being told for 10 weeks to “stay home and stay safe,” at least 10,000 Michigan residents were told on May 19 to instead “get out and stay safe.”

At 5:46 p.m. on May 19, the Edenville Dam in central Michigan failed, releasing 21.5 billion gallons of water. Later that evening, the Sanford Dam 30 miles south subsequently overflowed, flooding the Tittabawassee River in Midland, Michigan. Thousands fled their homes; no casualties occurred during the evacuation.

Map of Midland, Michigan and the Edenville Dam which failed on May 19, 2020.
Map of Midland, Michigan and the Edenville Dam which failed on May 19, 2020. Credit: Screenshot from Google Maps

After Midland residents evacuated, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints spent their Memorial Day holiday weekend offering some relief. In times of crisis, many recognize the “Helping Hands” volunteers who come to the rescue with their bright yellow shirts and big smiles — this time was no different.

Bishop Monte Searle of the Midland 1st Ward said watching the water rise in his area was “unreal.”

“You just have to wait until all the water recedes,” he said, adding that “during that time is when the Church really came in and helped” — relief supplies shipped from Salt Lake City in a 52-foot trailer.

Thirty families in the Midland 1st Ward evacuated during the flood. In ward members’ homes, Bishop Searle saw two extremes: some families only had inches of water in their homes, but for others, “the water was within a foot of cresting the entire house.”

Said Midland Michigan Stake President Derrek Henrie: “Unless you’ve seen it, you just can’t imagine it.”

Faced with the insurmountable task of repairing countless homes amid a global pandemic, the Midland stake sent out a plea to surrounding Michigan stakes, hopeful Latter-day Saints would show up to help.

Helping Hands volunteers gathering into groups of 10 in a church parking lot in Michigan, getting instructions and supplies before heading to "muck" out houses impacted by the floods.
Helping Hands volunteers gathering into groups of 10 in a church parking lot in Michigan, getting instructions and supplies before heading to “muck” out houses impacted by the floods. Credit: Adrienne Gillis

Volunteers came from 175 cities across six states — Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Ohio, Missouri and Oklahoma. Starting at 8 a.m. on May 23, they gathered in teams of 10, retrieved necessary supplies and set off in separate cars, all the while trying to abide by Michigan’s coronavirus restrictions.

“We had been on a stay-at-home order for over two and a half months, and suddenly we had a little bit of license to get out and actually work,” said President Henrie. “And boy, did we come out and work.”

In just three days, 2,500 volunteers contributed over 13,000 volunteer hours and “completed” 353 houses — meaning volunteers finishing “mucking out” the houses.

Mucking out a house usually requires removal of carpet, wet drywall and anything else destroyed by the water. “It’s overwhelming to watch,” said President Henrie, adding that people came out of their houses carrying boxes of photos and memorabilia they considered most valuable — all destroyed.

One of the many homes impacted by the flood in Mid-Michigan in May 2020.
One of the many homes impacted by the flood in Mid-Michigan in May 2020. Credit: Jonathan Dunford

“Within minutes, the people volunteering are crying, the people who are helping are crying; — everyone’s emotional,” he said.

Katelynn Belliston, a 15-year-old Helping Hands volunteer from Milford, said, “I remember pulling into a neighborhood that was on the lake and seeing the lake just completely gone — it was just mud,” Belliston said.

“And then driving through the neighborhood, there was stuff piled on both sides of the street that people had to throw out,” she continued. “I remember feeling so heartbroken.”

15-year-old Katelynn Belliston drove with her dad and brother almost 100 miles each way to help "muck out" Michigan houses impacted by the flood.
15-year-old Katelynn Belliston drove with her dad and brother almost 100 miles each way to help “muck out” Michigan houses impacted by the flood. Credit: Courtesy: Katelynn Belliston

Midland stake leaders estimated 80% of the Helping Hands volunteers were members of the Church, with the other 20% being friends who jumped in to help when they saw the familiar yellow shirts.

“We were the first ones really involved … because the Church is able to mobilize people so quickly,” said President Henrie. “It’s fun to get together as Saints and practice our religion in such a nice way.”

Sister Melissa Wall, Midland 1st Ward Relief Society president, said that while it’s one thing to go help a neighboring city, “I was profoundly struck with what it felt like to be the ward council in the ward boundaries where those dams gave way. … We have a really great ward council.”

Belliston added: “I think one of the coolest parts of the experience was just how appreciative everybody was. The people were just in awe.”

Helping Hands volunteers are donating the rest of their supplies to United Way of Midland County, which is heading up ongoing relief efforts. These supplies include over 6,000 items such as gloves, disposable masks, garbage bags, cleaning supplies and almost 30 pounds of apples and oranges.

Helping Hands volunteers clearing a basement of mud. The home was reinforced before entering as the basement wall had failed.
Helping Hands volunteers clearing a basement of mud. The home was reinforced before entering as the basement wall had failed. Credit: Adrienne Gillis

As they passed the torch to United Way, Midland stake and ward leaders expressed their heartfelt thanks to all the volunteers in a Facebook post: “We are overwhelmed with gratitude for all the help and support we received over the last several days. … Thank you for making the work lighter and our hearts fuller.”

President Henrie added: “I wish I could hug them all, shed a tear or two with each of them and tell him how appreciative the Midland Michigan Stake is of all the help we received.”