U group lends a hand in flood zone

by Lynne Kozarek

Jay Johnson, a 17-year resident of East Grand Forks, is still smiling even after all the blows life has dealt him. He was partially paralyzed in a motorcycle accident and confined to a wheelchair 17 years ago. He overcame the accident and started Options, a nonprofit company supplying used equipment such as wheelchairs and walkers to disabled people in 16 counties.
But both the personal and professional triumphs of his life were swept away by the Red River.
The recent flooding filled the basement of his home and destroyed his business. Many in his situation would be upset and bitter, but not Johnson. Since being allowed back into the town about two weeks ago, he is helping himself and others get back on their feet.
“We have to get on our feet and running so we can help other people,” Johnson said.
That determination was also prevalent in the 70 University students, staff and faculty members who traveled to East Grand Forks last weekend to help sweep up the grit and sift through the refuse left over from the recent flooding in western Minnesota and North Dakota.
The workers left the Twin Cities at about 8 a.m. Friday and endured a five-hour bus ride to the University’s Crookston campus, where they stayed for the weekend. However, upon their arrival, the travel-weary volunteers immediately said they were anxious to move on to East Grand Forks and begin the cleanup.
The group sat through a short orientation in which Pam Holsinger-Fuchs prepared the volunteers for what they would see when they reached their destination for the day. Holsinger-Fuchs is in charge of shelter operations on the Crookston campus.
“You’ll be working with mildew and mold and mucking out people’s basements,” Holsinger-Fuchs said. “People’s lives are on their front lawns.”
“We are very pleased that part of the University system is here to help, but we’re not happy it took a national disaster to bring us together.”
Georgiann Marchand and Eric Whitell, freshmen at the University’s Crookston campus, also helped receive Twin Cities volunteers. The two had been in East Grand Forks just days after residents were evacuated. They likened the town to Bosnia.
“It looks like a war zone,” Marchand said. “(Going there) is a very humbling experience.”
After a short ride from Crookston into East Grand Forks, weekend volunteers and University employees Karri Zaitz, Sue Graupmann and Stephanie Brugler rested outside the bus and waited for their volunteer assignments. They said they came along on the trip to help make a difference in the lives of flood victims.
“I don’t have a lot of money to give,” Zaitz, a staff member in the University’s Department of Recreational Sports said, “but I do have time to give.”
While waiting, the 70 volunteers, clad in yellow T-shirts reading “Flood Relief and U” played a pick-up game of baseball with rubber gloves and sticks in the parking lot of East Grand Forks City Hall — temporarily located at the local Comfort Inn, which was one of the few local buildings not affected by the flood. The primary city hall was swallowed up by the floodwater, which crested at 54 feet.
Barb Callahan, an employee at the phone center in the temporary city hall, said the phone center was originally set up as a help line so residents would have a place to get answers to their flood survival and clean-up questions. But city hall also houses mental health professionals, a branch of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and a nurse to provide tetanus shots for residents and volunteers.
“People need to know how to get their lives back,” Callahan said.
Callahan said most residents are holding up well, but some are bitter and scared. “We have been sending mental health people to walk the streets.”
“We have people calling and shouting at us and swearing at us and hanging up on us,” said Callahan. “Some of the adults are losing it, and the kids are watching. The children need something to do because a lot of them have lost everything.”
Julie Dubuque, a volunteer at the phone center, said many people were giving their time to many grateful residents and donating everything from money to toys to shoes.
“We call all of our people our angels,” Callahan said. “From the Butchs to the Jeffs to the Tims and the Stans, we are going to thank everybody.”
After their 40-minute stop at City Hall, University volunteers re-boarded the coach buses and moved into East Grand Forks.
As the buses raised thick clouds of dust behind them, the volunteers became awestruck at their first glimpse of the devastation. Their widened eyes were met by piles of couches, soggy clothes and appliances over five feet high.
Somber, but eager to help, volunteers spent the next four hours pulling up sodden carpets and insulation and knocking down dry wall.
As the sky darkened, the volunteers — tired and plastered with mud — packed up their cleaning supplies and rode back to the gymnasium at the Crookston campus.
Yen Luo, a University volunteer and senior in the Carlson School of Management, said she was happy to help but was shocked by the mess she saw.
“Initially, my friends and I were going to come, but they couldn’t. So I decided this is something I could do on my own,” Luo said. “It is really hard to see something like that (the devastation of East Grand Forks). I feel so fortunate it didn’t happen to us.”
Luo spent Friday afternoon hauling muddy river water out of the basement of a small home and removing plastic from the basement walls.
“I hope these people are able to pick up again,” Luo said. “If that ever happened to me, I don’t think I could stay in the town.”
Luo said she went along on the weekend cleanup to help people. And the residents of East Grand Forks showed their appreciation in many ways.
June Corbid and her husband Denny, long-time residents of East Grand Forks, expressed their appreciation to University volunteers by making hamburgers and throwing a small picnic in their backyard.
“It is unbelievable what these nice people are doing,” June Corbid said. “My son was doing most of the cleaning, and he was overwhelmed by himself.”
The Corbid family had their newly remodeled basement destroyed in the flood.
“I didn’t think it was going to happen. I was totally numb,” said June Corbid. “We lost everything in the basement, but we’re lucky. My brother-in-law was hit much harder.”
Corbid said she has a hard time feeling sorry for herself when so many people lost so much more than she did.
She also explained that when she and her husband were evacuated, she took many useless items with her.
“I grabbed strange things. I took three books, a handful of Kleenex and 12 pairs of socks. Nothing else, just socks,” Corbid said.
Though the Corbids’ experience was far from the worst of the East Grand Forks flooding, she and her family were still grateful for the help they received from volunteers.
The University work crew left the Corbid house soon after the food was gone, but June Corbid began to cry and hugged each of them, thanking them for all they had done for her family.
Emily Gillespie, a sophomore in the College of Liberal Arts and volunteer, said she will take away many experiences from the weekend.
“I just kept thinking, `What if this happened to me?’ I would be in so much denial I wouldn’t be able to accept it,” Gillespie said.
Jane Canney, co-coordinator of the weekend cleanup, said she believed the weekend went very well.
“We are helping a city that’s been devastated, and they were able to open up their doors to us,” Canney said.
Canney said she received positive feedback from the victims and volunteers alike.
Jeanie Demlow lived across from Sherlock Park, the area of East Grand Forks that was hardest hit by flood waters. She said the more she comes back to what’s left of her home, the easier it gets, but it still isn’t easy.
“When the floods hit, we were all doing what we thought was the right thing for the city. We were trying to save our community, we weren’t trying to save our own homes,” Demlow said.
She said she is less concerned about herself than her 3-year-old daughter Martha, who seems to be taking everything in stride.
“FEMA to her is a big word,” Demlow said. “She knows they are good and are going to help.”
Demlow summed up her experience in a few humble words.
“I don’t think we can blame God. We have our lives. God has taken care of me this far, and he’ll take care of me into the future.”