Aftermath of flooding takes toll

Jennifer Dunville • The Daily Gleaner • October 06, 2008

Shelley Jones was expecting rotten wood, soggy drywall and mould when she volunteered to help clean up homes flooded by the St. John River.

But the Fredericton native wasn't expecting the tears and the look of defeat on the faces of the people she's encountered since the water receded.

"The emotional aftermath is a lot worse than anyone could've expected," Jones said. "Some days, you witness such devastation that even though it's not your home, you feel sad. It's been tough on the homeowners and even the volunteers."

Many homes affected by the flood are hundreds of years old, Jones said. And the same families have lived in them for generations.

"It's hard to just go in, clean up what you can and then leave," she said. "Houses are being condemned and some people have lost the only home they've ever known. It's difficult to just walk away from that."

Jones was grateful when the Rapid Response Team came to town.

The volunteer group of chaplains has been visiting low-lying areas to help with the emotional impact of flooding.

Mark Hidlebaugh and his wife Barbara are part of that team.

And they aren't strangers to natural disasters.

The Winnipeg couple has traveled the world to help communities affected by flooding, hurricanes and tornados.

Hidlebaugh said they got on the first available plane to Fredericton when they heard about the flooding in New Brunswick.

"What we do is make ourselves available to people who need to talk," Hidlebaugh said. "Sometimes people just need an ear. A natural disaster is a tough thing to go through. We aren't psychologists but we are here if people need to talk."

The Rapid Response Team is part of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association of Canada. But Hidlebaugh said disaster relief isn't just about religion.

Team members are available to people of all denominations, even those who don't consider themselves religious.

"You wouldn't think something as simple as having someone to talk to would help, but I've seen the benefits of having this team around," Jones said. "They talked with volunteers and homeowners stressed by the flood damage and have been really helpful.

"It's shown me the importance of taking care of people's emotional needs in times like this too."

Hidlebaugh said most of the people he has met in New Brunswick are looking for spiritual guidance or someone to talk to about their experience.

But a few have shown signs of extreme frustration, substance abuse, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, he said.

"When that happens, we don't mess around," Hidlebaugh said. "We don't have any problem referring people to someone more qualified to help."

Jones said she wouldn't be able to continue volunteering if it weren't for the Rapid Response Team.

It's too hard to move on to the next house when the homeowner looks so devastated, she said.

"It can't be easy to experience such destruction caused by flooding, but it also can't be easy having strangers come in to rip up your walls and your floors and throw out your possessions," Jones said. "I think we can lessen that some if we continue to deal with emotional, mental and physical cleanup all at once."

Hidlebaugh said he's happy to help. It's his calling in life.

"If I can ease someone's pain by praying with them or relieve their stress by just letting them talk, then that's what I will do," he said.

For help with cleaning up or for emotional support, contact the Samaritan's Purse Canada or the Rapid Response Team at 1-800-293-3717.