DuBois flooding damage cuts deep

DUBOIS – Looking around downtown DuBois, it’s hard to tell that much of the city was under water 10 days ago. Everything is dry.

“It’s really hard to see the scope of the damage,” Jason Bange, executive director of the McKean-Potter Red Cross chapter, said Friday.

Although it’s dry now, a June 27 storm that caused severe flooding in the region was the worst many had seen in at least a decade, he said.

Others said it had been even longer than that.

When it began raining about 9:30 a.m. on June 27, Bange said it didn’t take long for workers to realize they were going to be needed.

A glance outside his office window about noon showed him “we were going to have major flooding,” he said.

Streets normally full of cars and shoppers had turned into rushing streams.

Boots on the ground

A Red Cross office that normally requires only two workers was bustling late Friday afternoon.

Roughly a dozen employees and volunteers were on the move, looking to match assistance applicants with someone who could evaluate damage to their homes and businesses.

DuBois resident Dennis Jordan was among them, waiting for a voucher for a hot water tank and furnace assessment.

He hoped he wouldn’t have to replace either, he said, which would cost upward of $2,000.

But, he was quick to add, he was more fortunate than most by the storm’s end.

“I didn’t lose as much as a lot of these people,” he said, looking around to those waiting with him. “Hopefully, I’ll just need a new control box.”

“It’ll be a couple hundred bucks,” he added, “but it’s better than a couple thousand.”

Bange said the Red Cross’ primary function is to provide immediate emergency assistance: setting up shelters for people who couldn’t return to their homes, providing clothes and food and later connecting them with people who could inspect their flood damage.

The first night after the storm, 96 people needed to be housed in an emergency shelter, Bange said.

Luckily, by the second night, only a handful hadn’t been able to return home or find a friend with whom they could stay.

Bange said between the Red Cross efforts, and help from local fire halls and churches, people got the help they needed those nights.

More than a week later, the focus now is on damage assessment, so people can start the months-long repair process.

Steven and Marilyn Hanzely of Reynoldsville, about 10 miles southwest of DuBois, also were among those waiting Friday for someone to inspect their home.

The couple said they thought they would be safe from flooding, with their home located on a hillside, but a well pipe outside brought the water in from underground, ruining laminate flooring in their kitchen.

Like Jordan, they also believe they were spared from the worst, but aren’t able to look under the floor themselves to see how bad it really is.

“We don’t know what damage is under there,” Steven Hanzely said.

30 hours, 30 days, 300 days

One of the main groups leading relief efforts is a local chapter of the United Methodist Committee on Relief.

“We’ve got a lot going on,” said the Rev. Lance Tucker, pastor of First UMC DuBois on West Long Avenue.

Tucker and the Rev. Tom Carr, pastor at Reynoldsville First UMC and disaster response coordinator for the committee’s Indiana District, said the church has developed long-term strategies.

The Indiana district covers Jefferson and Indiana counties, along with parts of Clearfield and Armstrong counties.

Carr said there is a committee formula that shows how long repairs will take.

In DuBois’ case, he estimated that a full recovery will take around 300 days, a staggering estimate to some.

From the time the water started rising and forced people to evacuate their homes, to the time emergency responders finished pumping water out of peoples’ basements, lasted roughly 30 hours, he said.

“In this case, we know it was actually a little bit longer than that for fire companies,” he said, but it’s a good indicator that the next phase will then take 30 days.

“That our part of the relief work is … just dealing with the damage to properties,” Carr said, and getting “houses to where they’re safe, even if not put back together yet.”

Then people can go back to living in their homes, knowing that church workers have cleaned muck out of basements and are airing out flooded areas to prevent mold growth.

From then, workers move to the recovery phase.

Some organizations can do major repair work if a house is structurally compromised, but for the relief committee, it means installing drywall and replacing what had to be ripped out in the 30-day phase.

“We’re figuring, by the time we’re done … it’s going to be a year to a year and a half to get everybody back to life as normal,” he said.

‘I’d be lost’

Margie McKolanis and her son, Mark, have lived in their house near the corner of Pentz Run Avenue and East Dixon Avenue for 17 years.

The area is known as one of the lowest parts of the city, she said. And with a small creek running behind her home, she’s no stranger to flooding.

But water never had gone beyond the second step from the top of her basement landing.

It’s been bad, she said, but never this bad.

McKolanis was inside her home working as the storm escalated, and although she normally is quick to check her back yard for flooding, this time she didn’t, she said. When she finally saw that the entire yard was under water, she had to rush to move some of her belongings upstairs.

By the storm’s end, the water was four feet high on the first floor.

Six volunteers stood outside her home, wiping sweat from their brows and taking a moment to breath, free from their dust masks.

They had just finished ripping into a first-floor wall, tearing out wood at waist height all around the room.

Most of McKolanis’ neighbors are able to do repair work themselves, she said, looking over at a man pumping orange-colored water from his basement.

But she wouldn’t be able to do it alone.

“I’d be lost,” she said.

Although the inside still smells slightly and there is much work to do, McKolanis said she is nervous about the prospect of staying with her mother in Punxsutawney while the work is completed.

“I hate to just leave it,” she said, and even once the repairs are done she said she knows there will be other floods.

But she doesn’t see moving out of one of DuBois’ lowest-lying areas.

“I can’t afford anything else,” she said.

A neighborhood effort

Just a few blocks away from First UMC, but several feet closer to sea level, Shankel’s Pharmacy on West Long Avenue was one of the businesses most severely impacted by the storm.

“Our entire store flooded,” with one and a half feet of wall-to-wall water, said Office Manager Apryle Simbeck.

But closing for repair was out of the question.

“You have to have your medicine,” she said, although some customers were asked to pick up prescriptions a few doors away at an appliance company’s storage facility.

Owner Tom Bowser said it was the third time the store had flooded, but workers were prepared.

They set out sandbags to fight the flooding and, “We kept it at bay for a couple of hours,” he said.

In the meantime, Bowser and his employees were able to move prescriptions and other items from floor-level shelves, and secure refrigerated medicine and narcotics.

They were unable to salvage a computer.

“These storms are quite expensive,” he said, especially since his home also sustained damage.

But “merchandise-wise, we lost next to nothing,” he added.

It took days using large dehumidifiers to clear away the water, he said.

A cleaning company came in to sanitize and an electrician checked on computers and refrigerators.

But Bowser said he got a lot of help from friends, neighboring businesses and his employees working extra hours to repair the storefront.

“Everybody on the block just pitched in,” he said.

No small disasters

Carr said the church relief committee responds to disasters across the country and he’s seen many levels of damage.

DuBois’ geographic region is small, he said, compared with a Hurricane Katrina or Sandy, but both Clearfield and Jefferson counties have issued emergency disaster declarations.

“No disaster is small when it hits you,” he said.

Data from earlier in the week showed 1,500 homes affected in the area, with damage ranging from an inch of water to entire first-floor flooding, he said.

But damage goes beyond the visible signs of a high-water mark or wet floor, and the church will be working for the next several days and even 300 days, or more to make sure houses are livable again.

“We’re not planning on going anywhere any time soon,” he said. “We’re here until the end.”