It’s been two years since the devastating floods of February 2020. The disaster meant a sudden crisis for hundreds of families from Dayton, Waitsburg, through Walla Walla and into Umatilla County. Then COVID hit.
In the midst of the ongoing pandemic, United Way of the Blue Mountains has worked tirelessly to restore and assist those devastated by the floods. For the next two years, the collaboration of agencies and volunteers making up the Blue Mountain Long-Term Recovery Group, BMLTRG, have worked together to restore safety and stability to the flood survivors. Communities all along the flood path rallied together with countless acts of heroism and kindness.
“We are close to wrapping up,” Christy Lieuallen, Executive Director of United Way of the Blue Mountains and BMLTRG Co-Chair said. “There are a few more survivors we’re trying to support. Then we’ll go into maintenance mode.” The group will continue, in case there’s another disaster. In that unhappy event, they will just shift into an active response mode.
In the February 2020 flood, the first thing accomplished was the formation of the long-term recovery group. The group uses a collaborative approach. By bringing agencies, organizations and nonprofits together with resources, volunteers, disaster case management, construction services and financial assistance, the organization can accelerate recovery and repair damage as well as build a stronger community.
The collaborative effort steps in and assists in small or large emergencies, making those affected whole again. But this may take years to accomplish.
Charlene Larsen, co-chair of the Unmet Needs portion of the BMLTRG, was an integral part of the formation of the new group. Larsen gained her experience in disaster recovery during and after the 2007 Great Coastal Gale in Astoria and the nearby Oregon coast. Larsen said there were three days of hurricane force winds with a huge amount of destruction. During the storm, with all of its destruction, one scene grabbed Larsen’s attention. She watched large bushes buffeted by the winds, unscrew themselves out of the ground and be destroyed. Severe destruction was widespread, trees down, wires down, damage throughout the area.
She utilized her existing community connections and began learning how to form a Long-Term Recovery Group. “The connections and relationships form the core group,” Larsen said. In the 2020 flooding, many came together, with their different capabilities and experience. The group and survivors benefitted from the diverse talents in collaboration. They also don’t duplicate services. “Each stays in their own lane,” Larsen said. Disaster case managers are trained to help survivors along the way.
Another challenge is the complicated navigation of government services. “Usually a group like this stays within one county but because of the nature of the region and the needs of the flood survivors ours crossed even state borders,” Lieuallen said. The Federal Government declared an emergency on the Oregon side but not on the Washington side, so the response had to be different in each place affected by the flood waters. Differing federal, state and county issues added complications and challenges for the recovery group and flood survivors. But everyone persevered, with excellent communication and results.
“If they’re wading through the government lingo,” Larsen said. “They’re apt to feel a little lost. That’s what the disaster case manager does, what they’re trained for. They use all available community resources.”
But it’s a long process towards repair. “We expected our completion to take about seven years,” Lieuallen said. However, the process is almost complete now, 579 cases closed, three remaining, showing how well everyone stepped up to help, sharing knowledge and resources. “We were hoping for two years, but it will be under three,” Lieuallen said. Often it takes three to six months for survivors to wait for FEMA and insurance money to come in. After that, long-term recovery. “We are the last hand off,” Lieuallen said. “We are the last dollars, the last stop.”
FEMA spent more than two million dollars in Umatilla County on repairs. The Recovery group spent about an additional $157,000 in direct support, and over $700,000 in indirect supports including, volunteer time and other agency resources
Louise Kienzle, recovery group co-chair of the Volunteer Committee, said she learned a lot about disaster ministry. Since the pandemic prevented much help coming from out of the area, help needed to be supplied by local communities. The help was phenomenal, Kienzle said. People everywhere joined together to assist each other. Mitigation efforts are also underway to address future disasters. The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation are playing a crucial role in that work. This is a unique time for all to come together to plan for the future, and build relationships necessary for the next response to a disaster, Larsen said.
Local heroes are too numerous to praise them as much as they deserve but here are some: Disaster Case Managers in each community as well as countless individuals, Seventh-Day Adventist Community Services Disaster Response, Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Adventist Community Services Disaster Response, SonBridge Center for Better Living, United Methodist Volunteers in Mission, Pioneer United Methodist Church, PNWUMC Early Response Team/UMCOR, Pendleton Lions Club, Christ Lutheran Church, United Methodist Committee on Relief/UMCOR, Lutheran Disaster Response, Oregon VOAD, Oregon Synod Disaster Preparedness, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, Walla Walla University - Center for Humanitarian Engagement, Blue Mountain Action Council, CAPECO, United Way of the Blue Mountains and many, many more.
In the midst of disruption and grief, loss of homes and stability, disaster case management is personal help for survivors. According to Larsen, “A disaster case manager is key to reaching out to survivors, to find out what their needs are. It’s the worst day of their lives and you have someone to walk alongside you to form a recovery plan.”
“We’ve all got to come together and be team players,” Lieuallen said. “We were so lucky we had amazing people help. One lesson learned was that we really need to bring on a construction manager to assess and facilitate needed repairs.”
The group exemplifies the community coming together in a disaster to help survivors with housing, physical, mental, emotional and spiritual needs.
There were lots of lessons learned and good work done. “We want everyone to return to a safe, sanitary condition like before the flood or any disaster,” Lieuallen said.