Volunteer Tears Down Walls Between Town and Recovery

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Release date: 
September 2, 2011
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COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Four months ago, the city of Morehouse, Mo., was swamped by floodwaters and remained submerged for 10 days, sustaining water damage in almost two-thirds of its residences.

Now the town faces an uphill battle to become what it once was, says Mayor Pete Leija.

"We were underwater before we really realized what was going on," Leija said. "A lot of people wanted to come back and move back into their homes, and they didn't realize what kind of damage floodwater really does. People are just now facing reality."

The receding floodwaters meant new problems for many homeowners. Some structures were unfit for occupation due to mold and other damage, and before the residents could rebuild, their homes would have to be demolished -- down to the slab.

Specialists from the Federal Emergency Management Agency Public Assistance program supported the city of Morehouse in identifying properties that would require demolition as a result of the flooding event. But to clear the way to recovery, the city would need some help. To expedite the demolition process, PA specialists turned to FEMA's Voluntary Agency Liaison section, which works with voluntary and faith-based organizations involved in disaster response and recovery.

The VAL representative promptly put out the call for FEMA's voluntary agency partners to come to the city's aid, requesting the help of any organization with the capability and the resources to conduct a big demolition job.

The Mennonite Disaster Service's national office responded. One week later, Roger Claassen rolled into town with 10 tons of his own personal heavy machinery and a heart the size to match it.

"My folks-in-law always wanted to do some service after they quit farming, and their health didn't stay good enough, and they didn't get the chance to do it. I said I'm not going to make the same mistake," Claassen said. "So I may be quitting farming a little early, but at least I have the chance to do this."

A quiet man, Claassen has spent the last three years volunteering his time and equipment to the Mennonite Disaster Service, a volunteer network focused on cleanup and rebuilding after disasters. After receiving word from MDS about the need in Morehouse, Claassen drove almost 550 miles from his home in Plymouth, Neb., to southeast Missouri to manage single-handedly the leveling of 40 homes identified by city and federal personnel for demolition.

Leija said without Claassen's help, the houses might not have come down until this time next year.

"He's doing a fantastic job -- he's quick, very efficient," Leija said. "He's really expedited things."

Despite his soft-spoken demeanor, the farmer's straw hat and his trackhoe have become a familiar sight in Morehouse as he goes from one demolition site to the next.

"The mayor and a number of other city people have made me feel real welcome," Claassen said. "You can tell that most people, when they see me drive on the street with this, they smile and wave. They didn't do that at first."

Claassen's demolitions often inspire mixed feelings in former residents. FEMA VAL representative Miriam Gelo said demolition may not be easy emotionally, but it is the first step in the rebuilding process.

"Something like this -- having your home demolished -- is not an easy thing to witness; but once it's clear and with continued support from the local community and voluntary agencies, they [disaster survivors] start on the road to recovery," Gelo said. "It's a healthy process."

"A town like Morehouse or any disaster-impacted area would be able to recover in time without the assistance of voluntary organizations; however, having volunteers and voluntary organizations on the ground helps them recover that much quicker, getting disaster survivors into their homes, helping them start a new normal," Gelo said.

Leija said that because of assistance from...

Last Updated: 
July 16, 2012 - 18:46
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