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In Morehouse, people are recovering from flood, one step at a time

This article first appeared  in the St. Louis Beacon, June 29, 2011 - MOREHOUSE, Mo. — Mary Davis, 72, wore a protective face mask and gloves as she worked outside her water-damaged home Friday afternoon wrapping glassware in sheets of newspaper for safe storage. She was trying to avoid contact with the mold and mildew that have been thriving on the surfaces of her life since flash flooding in late April swallowed Morehouse, a town of about 1,000 in New Madrid County.

"It just about devastated the whole town," Davis said, her eyes welling with sadness. "I've lost the contents of the house. Mold had climbed up the walls. It looks to me like it's beyond repair."

The water receded weeks ago, but Davis is still dogpaddling in the aftermath — and wondering how in the world she will ever make her house right again. Davis, who lost most of her furniture to the flooding, is staying with her sister in nearby Dexter.

"This is your life. Your history," she said. "It's awful."

Inside her home on this steamy afternoon, members of the AmeriCorps Hoopa Tribal Civilian Community Corps from northern California were muscling through the hard, dirty work of cleanup: hacking out rotted flooring and the bottom 4 feet of drywall, scrubbing surfaces with bleach.

Corps members and other volunteer groups — many of them faith-based — have been working their way through Morehouse, helping the community to get back on its feet. But the last of these benevolent visitors were set to leave on Sunday, and Davis was worried about where she will find help to complete the rehabbing.

"I have hopes, but I don't know whether they'll be met or not," she said. "But we're trying."

When tragedy hits home

Morehouse has been making progress since floodwater crept unexpectedly into town on the night of April 27 and then rose so fast that most residents were unable to move their possessions from their homes. Troops from the Missouri National Guard helped residents sandbag, saving the water treatment plant from the smelly, brown soup that eventually covered about three-quarters of the town.

But progress after a disaster is ultimately an individual battle, and in each flood-stained home along each affected street in Morehouse there is a different story of a struggle to somehow, some way stem the flood of disruption and get back to normal.

While spring flooding along the Mississippi River captured national attention, much of inland Southeast Missouri was also waterlogged by record rains that overwhelmed the elaborate web of ditches, levees and diversion channels that make up the Little River Drainage District. The district was formed in 1907 to drain the lowlands that stretch across seven counties in the Bootheel.

Morehouse residents say the floodwater from Little River was made more severe because of a temporary earthen berm built along the westbound lanes of Highway 60 by the Missouri Department of Transportation to keep the road open. MoDOT officials say there is no evidence to support that claim.

Even longtime residents of Morehouse, about 10 miles west of Sikeston, say they had never seen anything like this disaster that left about two-thirds of the town's 430 homes standing in several feet of water. Few had flood insurance because, they say, the town has never flooded.

Mayor Pete Leija estimates that about 150 people were forced from town because of the flood. But the town's population had already been declining — dropping from 1,015 to 973, according to 2010 Census numbers — and life was already a financial struggle for many of its residents. Unemployment in New Madrid County was 9.5 percent in May; the median household income in Morehouse was $23,250 in 2009.

Morehouse residents have so far received nearly $2.2 million in disaster assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Administration. FEMA grants, which do not have to be repaid, vary by case, with a $30,200 maximum. After that, low-interest disaster assistance loans are available from the Small Business Administration.

Whether the FEMA assistance will be enough to help homeowners repair their homes and return to Morehouse depends on an individual's circumstances, said Leija. He praised the hundreds of volunteers who have donated their time to help overwhelmed residents begin the cleanup.

"If it hadn't been for them, a lot of people wouldn't have made it," he said.

Leija said that most people don't think about tragedy until it hits home.

"We hear of tragedies on television and know that they're happening throughout our land," he said. "I know the state of Missouri has been hit in many, many areas. Thankfully, we have a lot of faith-based organizations that reach out and help communities such as my own."

'This too shall pass'

During the height of the disaster, someone carefully hand-lettered a message of faith and posted it at the entrance to town on Highway 114: "THIS TOO SHALL PASS."

The sign is gone now, but not the spirit. Leija says his town will prevail, though it is facing an uphill climb.

"Life will go on this little community," he said. "We're going to make it through. We're a strong community. We're going to be a changed community, but we'll still be strong. We're going to carry on and some day we'll look back at this and say, 'It came to pass, but we survived it.' "

Leija is out and about on the town's streets daily, surveying damage — and progress — in his red cart nicknamed "the chuckwagon." His cell phone rings nonstop with questions and concerns.

Residents such as Bill Beck credit Leija for working nonstop since the disaster.

"That man has worked himself silly for this town," Beck said.

Leija, 63, is a retired Army veteran, the son of Mexican migrant workers who moved to Morehouse when he was 6. He learned English in the town schools and remembers what it was like to not be able to get a haircut in town because of "the racial thing."

The mayor is protective of his town, intervening when he feels government agencies have treated residents with disrespect, chasing off "scrappers" — scrap dealers who came to Morehouse to pick through flood-soaked belongings drying outside homes.

"I serve not only my country but my community," said Leija. He said he makes $125 a month as mayor.

The flooding affected 280 homes, and about 70 of them will be condemned and demolished, Leija said, adding that it's a difficult thing for some homeowners to hear.

Depending on the damage, even the maximum FEMA grant of $30,200 may not go far enough if the homeowner didn't have flood insurance — and only a handful of residents did. The FEMA loan program might not be feasible because of a homeowner's financial situation, Leija said.

"If a house has been washed off its foundation, you can spend $30,000 in no time," he said.

Leija said a lot of people have a difficult time facing their situations after a disaster.

"You see a lot of people who lose everything they've accumulated throughout the years and watch it wash away over night," Leija said.

Catch 22 for some elderly residents

Leija said he is particularly concerned about low-income elderly residents who signed over the deeds of their homes to their children or other family members so they could qualify for government programs such as Medicaid. Eligibility rules for HealthNet — Missouri's Medicaid program — cap monthly income at $772 per individual, with available assets of less than $1,000.

Leija said that although these elderly residents continued to live in their homes, they were told by FEMA representatives that they are considered to be renters and ineligible for repair grants. The actual homeowners are considered to be business owners and are eligible for loans to make the repairs — but not grants. The situation left some elderly residents of Morehouse ineligible for FEMA assistance and without a place to live.

"It's heartbreaking," he said.

Leija said that he intervened with FEMA on behalf of one elderly Morehouse couple caught in the tangle and was assured that they could be helped. But when the woman approached a local representative of the agency, the worker directed a derogatory insult at the mayor.

Russ Edmonston, a FEMA spokesman, said Monday that the agency had already taken action on the issue and would not condone inappropriate actions by agency representatives. He also said that FEMA was re-inspecting the couple's claim because in cases where elderly residents have signed over their homes but continue to act as homeowners, they would be treated as homeowners and eligible for housing and repair assistance.

"If they continue to do maintenance on the house and have receipts, if they're paying taxes on the house and have receipts, if they pay insurance on the house and have receipts, we will consider them for repair grants or the rental assistance," he said.

Edmonston said FEMA tries to assist disaster victims as much as possible, but he acknowledges that the program has limitations. He stressed that it is not an insurance program but, instead, provides temporary assistance for people who have been left in unlivable conditions because of a disaster.

"Our program is not a program that restores to pre-disaster conditions," Edmonston said. "We provide funding to provide housing for those who can not or should not live in their homes because of disaster-related conditions."

While the maximum grant is $30,200, the average FEMA amount is $2,700 to $3,000, he said.

That is why FEMA partners with nonprofit agencies and volunteer groups to form long-term recovery groups to further assist communities, he noted.

"I am a big fan of all the volunteers who come in," Edmonston said.

In Morehouse, those groups have included the Hoopa Tribal Civilian Community Corps and a host of volunteer organizations, including All Hands Volunteers and Southern Baptist Disaster Relief.

Yaynicut Franco of the Hoopa group said it is an AmeriCorps program for men and women ages 18 to 24 who receive an education grant after serving 1,700 national service hours. The group had been working in Morehouse since May 18.

The town's churches have also been active in flood relief. The First Baptist Church of Morehouse opened its doors as an emergency shelter for flood victims and then housed visiting volunteers. The First General Baptist Church has served as the command center for Hope International, based in Bernie, Mo.

The Rev. Tim Russell of Hope International said he has watched Morehouse come from "ground zero" to regain hope. In addition to volunteers who helped with cleanup, he said his organization has supplied about $20,000 in materials and labor to help overwhelmed residents begin reconstructing their lives.

"Our hearts connected with them," he said. "For the volunteers it's strengthened them. I think it's really connected people with their purpose. I believe we're here for two reasons: to love God with everything we've got and to love people. And if we don't find an avenue to give back, we're missing things as a human being. We're simply existing."

Debris, debris everywhere

Julie Thompson, who works at a comfortable hotel in Sikeston, goes home to a camper parked outside her house in Morehouse — and sometimes sleeps on a mattress on the concrete floor of what's left of her bedroom. Her home, which had more than 3 feet of water in it for a week, has been cleaned and new drywall is stacked in her living room waiting to be installed.

Thompson said she bought the house after her mother died, "just in time for all of this."

Above the 4 foot line where wet drywall was removed, Thompson's house looks as it did before the flood — curtains on the windows and a sunburst wall hanging in the living room. But outside, her street is cluttered with stacks of debris removed from homes, awaiting pickup, and yards are still filled with debris deposited willy-nilly by the floodwater.

"It's everywhere," Thompson said. "People can't mow because of the debris. I had 15 tires in my yard."

Although her neighbors have moved — she is feeding their cat — Thompson said that is not an option for her.

"I paid too much for this house, and I still have a balance," she said. "This has to work."

Leija knows that his town is looking unkempt, but for now there is simply no place to take the flood debris — and no one to move it there. His handful of city employees are already working overtime to keep the town running.

Morehouse had a temporary permit from the Department of Natural Resources to burn debris, but it expired, Leija said. Until arrangements are finalized for removal, a half-burned hill of flood cast-offs — everything from water-marked couches and rotted building materials to Christmas decorations — waits in a lot at the edge of town.

Edmonston said that in addition to the individual aid FEMA has provided residents, the agency will be meeting with Morehouse officials this week to begin a debris removal program that is funded 75 percent by FEMA and 25 percent by state and nonfederal funding.

A silver lining

For Bill Beck, June 23 was a major milestone: He moved back to his blue frame house on Dunklin Street after living for two months at an emergency shelter at First Baptist Church of Morehouse. Unlike many of the town's residents, Beck has made major progress on his home, even changing the layout of his living room since he had to redo the floors and walls anyway.

"I put it back like I wanted it," he said smiling. "I spent last night here, and I couldn't sleep, just for looking at it."

Beck said that volunteers from Hope International began cleanup work as the water receded, and his was among the first houses to be "mudded out." His home had stood in several feet of floodwater for more than a week, leaving a mess that his wife couldn't bear to see. The couple lost some furniture, clothing and a stove, but, surprisingly, the refrigerator and freezer were still running.

Beck said that a repair grant from FEMA had allowed him to fix his home because he was able to do many of the repairs himself with the help of several young men who worked for "pocket money."

"I could not have paid for the labor," he said.

Beck praised FEMA and said he doesn't know what he would have done without the agency.

"They were here when I needed them, and I can't give anything but highest praise and respect for the group that worked this little community," he said. "There are a lot of people who feel different about this, but that's the way I feel about it."

A lot of prayers have been said around town, Beck said. "I was fortunate to have some of them answered."

While Beck is seeing the silver lining in his cloud, he acknowledges that Morehouse is far from recovered. Still, he believes the town will survive.

"We're not strangers to the rain — or the pain," he said. "I've escaped this place three different times, and I always come back because it's home."

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.

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