Pecan Valley, TX – Susan Leach walked through Ellen Vest’s ruined Shady Shores home Wednesday, wagging her head at how fast mold had bloomed green on Vest’s furniture. “We’ve seen it in every house,” Leach said. Leach is a new volunteer with the Pecan Valley chapter of the American Red Cross.
For the past nearly two weeks, volunteers like Leach, Frank Godinez and others have been scouting the shores of Lake Brownwood and other soggy neighborhoods to see what the organization could do for displaced people. Outside Vest’s home, limp carpet smoldered in a heap near wet mattresses piled against a tree in the yard. Vest is one of four generations of her family in her community, which is hidden in a maze of county roads off Hwy. 279. They had all evacuated the area during the worst of the flooding and had returned home to a saturated mess – and several eggs laid by their ducks throughout the opened house. You work all your life for what you’ve got, Vest said, and then it’s all gone. “But you’ve got your life,” she said.
Vest mentioned the initial shock of seeing the aftermath of the flood, then the overwhelmed feeling of wondering what to do. Monday night, Vest slept on a dry bed sent by the Red Cross and rejoiced at how good it felt. She had spent so long in wet clothes she hadn’t noticed the mattress was damp, Vest said. Godinez told her how to get medical help and advice about her asthma, which is aggravated by mold. He told her about the role of the Federal Emergency Management Agency rebuilding people’s homes. Leach, waiting for Godinez, told how she got involved with the Red Cross Friday before last.
The second-grade teacher from Woodland Heights Elementary walked in to take an impromptu training session and discovered she was all by herself. So she took an hour’s crash course and went out with the experienced volunteers to make the rounds. The local Red Cross recovery efforts have ridden on a wave of volunteers assigned to the Brownwood recovery effort. There are about 50 people from volunteer organizations – including Americorps – all over the United States here. Godinez, from Port St. Luce, Florida, was in New York City for 23 days last fall. Leach, from Brownwood, has worked with volunteers from states all over the Union, working out of the First Christian Church on Coggin Avenue and a fleet of rental cars.
With out-of-state volunteers assigned to disaster recovery centers all over Texas, the Red Cross service centers have worked something like a military operation, moving services and goods to the doorsteps of the people who need them. Seeing is believing. Both Leach and Godinez feel pushed by people’s needs and spend most of the day on a handful of calls, talking and reassuring people that somebody cares. Down the road from her own house, Vest’s mother, 87-year-old Norene Roberts, had finished ripping out her carpet. Fish swam energetically in two small tanks stacked on the bare board floor in the living room. Leach led the way to the back rooms, concerned about the mold now well above the water line dried on the wall. Roberts sat down for a bit in the kitchen to answer questions from Leach and Godinez while her cat, Cali, nervously paced.
Cali, Roberts said, had bolted from the travel trailer and had spent the worst of the flood outdoors. Disoriented and shocked, the cat still acted nervous and clamored for attention. Roberts pointed out what she had done so far. She had mopped the kitchen floor “about a thousand times” but each time she moved something, more water seeped out from the walls. Every once in awhile she has had to leave the house because of the poor air quality. Godinez began telling her how the Red Cross could help. Cali’s tail still switched angrily. Roberts did not want to accept a $50 voucher from the American Red Cross to get food. She was raised to be self-sufficient, and she intended to stay that way, even through the long clean-up process at her soaked and molding home. But she was tired and she had a long way to go before the house would be livable. “When this happens, you don’t know what to do,” she said afterwards.
Leach and Godinez studied Roberts’s face for a moment and then mentioned how the supplies were a gift from the American people, not a handout. She would need the nutrition to keep going through a cleaning up that was becoming more and more involved. Already Roberts was living out of her travel trailer while mold crawled up the walls of the house. The Red Cross disaster outreach team convinced her to take the voucher. By the time they left after nearly an hour of paperwork, they had also arranged to replace her box spring mattress.
Cali lay comfortably on her back on the kitchen floor, having found new cat people. Godinez told Roberts that the Red Cross can reimburse her for the money spent in a motel the second night the extended family was away from home, but Roberts said it wasn’t necessary. She was thinking about the prospect of tearing out the sheet rock, something she hasn’t done herself yet, “but I might.” Godinez has encouraged every flood victim he has met to register with FEMA, in case something like this happens again. Leach and Godinez climbed into their maroon car, their office away from the office. They drove around various county roads and farm-to-market routes, searching for tucked-away houses that might not have been assessed yet. They tallied cases, filled out pastel-colored papers from plastic folders and checked in with home base.
Leach commented how many pockets of communities there are around the lake without city services. They talked about the human natures they’ve seen on the road. There are some people who have much and want more. Then there are people who have lost almost everything and want nothing, like Norene Roberts, Godinez said. In a disaster, any little thing helps, he said. By the end of the day, seeing all the devastation is exhausting, Leach said. At one of the last stops of the afternoon, Leach shaded her eyes and stared at a flatbed trailer full of stuffed black trash bags, logs and mattresses, a now-familiar scene. She shook her head. Whenever she sees this, she said, she always thinks, “What if it had been my house?” American Red Cross volunteers respond to thousands of disasters each year, whether single house fires or multi-county disasters. Disaster relief operations are paid for by donations from the American public.