When disaster strikes, our resilience is rebuilt with helping hands

When disaster strikes, we reach out to restore life

Contributing Columnist

Eleven years ago, my beautiful house flooded. I lived in Binghamton, New York at the time and had just moved into my house one year before. It was just a block from the Susquehanna River and when my daughter-in-law visited, she insisted, absolutely insisted that I buy flood insurance. She is from Baton Rouge and is was well acquainted with floods. I acquiesced mainly to get her off my back. Furthermore, the insurance was only $300.

On the day of the flood I was at my church helping with the free dinner that we provided every Wednesday. Feeding 100 needy people was a heart-breaking experience on one hand but on the other was so fulfilling to see these dear folks leave happy.

During my whole life, I have paused before a meal to say grace. But it now felt somewhat shallow and artificial because never in my life have I been hungry because I could not afford a meal. My few times of hunger have totally been self-imposed.

It was at that community dinner where I met Brittany, a 13-year-old girl with her hair flowing down her face. We became friends and had many shopping sprees at Walmart. I was so grateful that I was able to provide her with clothes, toiletries and gifts for her family. She later joined the church and when her son was born, he was baptized there. She was such a gift to me: a young woman to guide through tough times.

My pastor was at the community meal the night of the flood and he, knowing where I lived, insisted that I leave immediately to avoid the streets that were already flooding. It was not until I had to drive through a foot of water that I realized the flood was truly serious and that my house was in danger.

Like thousands of people all along the river both in New York in Pennsylvania, the message by the police on my phone was that I had to leave immediately, take medicines and pets and go to the college gym. I later learned that there were hundreds of people lined up on cots at the gym and the pets had to stay in the car.

Fortunately, I called my friend Anita before I left and she insisted that I come to her house. For three days we were glued to her TV trying to spot my house. We could not see it but, in four days, we were allowed into the house. At first, I scheduled a flood-response company to come the next day and pump out my basement. The cost would be $1,000 dollars. But, before they arrived, my neighbor, Jim, came with a pump that his church had just purchased to pump out basements for free. I just bowed my head in gratitude.

I later realized how this was just the beginning of people surrounding me with love and concrete ways to help. Friends and relatives poured in to help clean up from the flood and restore my home.

My basement at the time had two feet of sewer water. Laundry and books were floating. Hammock and art supplies were floating. At that moment, I did not care about losing furniture, books or carpets: They could all be replaced. But, I feared that my thirteen photo albums were destroyed and could not ever, ever be replaced. In tears, I asked Jim to look for them. He had only a flashlight and could find just ten. I begged him to continue the search. I simply could not bear the idea of losing any of the albums. He kept looking and finally found all thirteen!

I then carried the sewer-soaked albums to my back deck.  I started to take the muddy photographs out of the albums, wipe them with a paper towel and set them on the deck to dry. It was a sunny day and I believed they could be spared. It was at that moment that my pastor, Steve, came by and declared that the photos should all be taken to the church, and that people there would wipe them off and dry them.

What a relief! Perhaps, perhaps my precious photos would be saved!

For two weeks I was mired in the clean-up of my house.Friends poured in to help. They knew I could never face the devastation on my own. Everything on my first floor had to either be thrown out or saved in some way. Sofas, of course, could not be saved but tables and chairs could be if thoroughly washed with bleach water. We wore masks to protect our lungs, but masks only helped somewhat. I, like many others, developed a cough that clearly stemmed from the foul air and sewer water.

For a week, I essentially forgot about the photos and focused on giving reports to the insurance company. I thanked my daughter-in-law profusely for insisting that I get flood insurance. Because of it, I actually received more money than I spent on rebuilding my house. My brother and his wife from Canada were central in this.

I learned later that my friends at my church had worked several evenings to save my photographs.  They took each one out of the plastic. They carefully wiped each photograph with a paper towel and set it on tables to dry. This took several evenings. Then one of my friends bought new photo albums and they placed all of the pictures in those albums.

At the coffee hour, that third Sunday after the flood, they presented me with the albums. I cried, they cried. I went home and slowly looked through all of those photos. Some I had forgotten.

As I was writing my memoir, Light Shines in the Darkness, pouring over my photos—photos of my entire life—helped me heal in a profound way. It helped me let go of some of the pain of divorce and showed me that my life as a single person is deeply enriching and fulfilling.

And now, eleven years later, I have just poured over those pictures once again. Pictures of my son, just five years old in his kindergarten graduation.Pictures of him playing chess in high school not just with his fellow students but with elderly Jewish men. That enabled him to take first place in the Illinois high school championship. Watching him in the town parade on a beautiful float—that is the stuff of “motherly pride.” Pictures of my precious outside garden and then my inside garden with its 91 plants.  Pictures of my nieces gathered in my living room—sharing the pain of sexual abuse by an older relative. Praying together, finding the strength to overcome that darkness in our lives.

Pictures of my two beloved friends, Alyce and Frank. All those Christmases together with Frank at the piano and the rest of us singing Joy to the World at the top of our lungs. The pets, PJ my cat who always manages to find a lap, and dear Pablo, Frank’s dog who had sugar diabetes (like Frank) and is now in dog heaven.

Tears flow as I see those pictures that, just eleven years ago, were floating in sewer water.  

Thanks to the many friends who worked so tirelessly to help me preserve those memories.


Care to Read More?

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Lucille Sider inspires readers nationwide with Light Shines in the Darkness, her memoir about spiritual resilience in the aftermath of life-shattering trauma. She also is publishing a series of columns about the many ways men and women find themselves confronting trauma every day.

Here are some of her earlier columns:




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