Op-ed column: Aftermath of a disaster, part 1

A flood is not a single event. It is a sudden, tragic occurrence followed by a series of days and we
Mark Wilson/For The Sunday Gazette
Mark Wilson/For The Sunday Gazette

A flood is not a single event. It is a sudden, tragic occurrence followed by a series of days and weeks and months in which the original horror continues to haunt, and nothing is ever normal again.

The Red Cross has stopped sending meals to families sitting outside their swamped homes. At my father’s house, their gift of a cleanup kit, delivered eight days after the flood, sat unpacked and leaning against the house near piles of soggy carpet, damaged sheetrock and household belongings sodden with putrid river water.

It contained a push broom, shovel, a container of bleach, some plastic bags, rubber gloves, and a bucket. It came in an official box labeled, “Disaster Cleanup Kit.” We took pictures of it.

Routines disrupted

Families whose homes were flooded have had to live elsewhere until/if their homes can be repaired; often, moving in with relatives. Their normal routine — get up, brush teeth, take a shower — is turned upside down. Where is my toothbrush? May I use your bathroom? Do I have any clean clothes that don’t smell like the river?

Related story

For a related op-ed piece, click here.

People accustomed to living on their own and very capable of doing so find themselves dependent on others. Their home, their own space, is gone.

Some may have gotten sick. Since Aug. 29, my father and his wife have lived mostly with her son, sometimes with me, and occasionally in the hospital. The stress of Irene and the bacteria of the river have combined to sicken their bodies. She has bronchitis and perhaps something worse; he has a cold and a bad cough. When they can get up and walk around, they do so in a daze, not knowing where anything is or sometimes, where they will spend the next night. They don’t eat or sleep well.

At a recent public function, I overheard a woman at another table saying to her friend, “My house was flooded for the second time in two weeks.” Without warning, tears sprang to my eyes, and I struggled for control. Knowing what my own family has been through, the thought of it happening twice in short order to anyone was too much for me, at that moment.

The flood news continues to revolve around the debate in Washington over funding of FEMA, the agency of first response in disasters such as Irene. There are numerous stories of suffering and people waiting for FEMA to come.

Our own experience with FEMA would not meet the news horror criteria. On Thursday, Sept. 1, I filed an application for my father and his wife online. Two days later a FEMA representative visited their home. On Thursday, Sept. 8, my father received a phone call. After confirming his identity, the caller advised him to check his bank account. FEMA had assessed his damages and had deposited therein a tidy sum.

I realize this is not news. The money is not enough to cover all the damages. But it lifted everyone’s spirits at a time when spirits desperately needed lifting.

I brought my father to a store to buy some supplies. When the proprietor learned he was a flood victim, he pointed to a bin near the cash register and said, ‘This money is for you; it will go locally to you and others who are victims of Irene.’ My dad said, ‘I have enough; I do not want it. FEMA has provided adequately for our damages.’

What happened to this area is truly a disaster. Many are still reeling from its aftermath.

Giving locally

Proud, independent people have been shaken to their roots. The effects of this awful event go on and on. When you think about donating money to some national organization, think again. Seek out flood victims and buy them lunch. Donate your used clothing to a church that brings it right to the people who need it. Volunteer your time to help someone clean out their cellar. Give truly locally.

I continue to look for ways to give direct aid to flood victims, including finding out more about that woman at the other table and what she needs.

My family, though, will not be among those on the news throwing up their hands and saying, “Where is FEMA?” The country my father fought for in World War II came through for him and his wife when they needed it most.

We are most grateful for FEMA’s quick response.

Audrey Osterlitz lives in Scotia. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.

Categories: Opinion

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