Early this month, South Carolina reached the 2-year anniversary of the devastating October 2015 rain event, offering a natural opportunity to pause and observe the many tragedies that the widespread flooding wrought, and the many triumphs of recovery that have followed. The Midlands Flood Recovery Group, for its part, celebrated a significant milestone in its flood recovery narrative this month: the 200th home repaired by the group and the gift of a restored home for one resilient flood survivor.
The Midlands Flood Recovery Group (MFRG) is a cluster of organizations that focuses their efforts on recovery for victims in Richland and Lexington counties. Organized by the United Way, the 60 partner
organizations have supported vulnerable flood survivors through many aspects of recovery, including repairing severely damaged homes like this one in Columbia. The group hosted an event to celebrate the milestone in backyard of their 200th aid recipient, Lou Alice James.
Rachel Pettit, Executive Director of the Saint Bernard Project (or SBP, the MFRG partner which has overseen the repairs to Ms. James’ home), introduced the homeowner to the gathered crowd.
“It’s because of homeowners like Ms. Lou Alice James that SBP came to South Carolina, and it’s because of homeowners like her that SBP will stay in South Carolina until this rebuilding effort is complete,” Pettit said. “SBP met Ms. James in June of this year, and since that time she has impacted every member of our team with her perseverance and positivity.”
When Lou Alice took the podium, she thanked SBP and the other volunteers who had come to assist with her home’s repairs, before triumphantly adding, to applause, “I may have lost all my material things in that home, but I can tell you one thing: I’m still alive, and I thank God for that!”
For Lou Alice, this day was indeed a long time in the making. Her home was so severely damaged by flooding that it was rendered uninhabitable. As a result, she has spent two years nomadically moving between the homes of various family members, not wanting to burden any one of them for too long. Though grateful for the help her family has given her, she has sorely missed her independence.
“I like the idea of having my own, so I can go in there and I can do what I like to do!” Lou Alice said.
When her house’s repairs are complete, returning will mean more than just steady housing for Lou Alice. This house has been in her family for many years, and was passed down to her from her mother. All of the family heirlooms in the house were destroyed by mold, save for a crystal candlestick that belonged to her grandmother, which Lou Alice clutched throughout the 200th Home Celebration.
However, like other recipients of aid from MFRG, Lou Alice was financially unable to repair the home herself. Since a diabetes-related disability took her out of the workforce several years ago, she has lived on only about $400 a month, according to SBP.
Sara Fawcett, President and CEO of United Way of the Midlands, says that many more homeowners like Lou Alice still await assistance.
“There’s at least 600 other homes that we know that are low income homes that are in need of repair, that have had little or nothing done to them, or where a family may be living in a home that’s in substandard condition, so that’s the work that really has yet to be done,” she said.
Pettit added that SBP alone has 50 clients waiting to hear the status of their own reconstruction projects.
“I think these 200 homes are a fantastic reminder and milestone to how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go,” Pettit said. “Being at a home like Ms. Lou Alice’s, you know, we realize how much work it takes to bring someone home after a disaster like this.”
Fortunately, there are still volunteers who are showing up to support these ongoing recovery efforts. At the
200th Home Celebration, it was hard to miss the group of boisterous teenagers who had traveled all the way from Ontario, Canada to volunteer for the Saint Bernard Project as a school mission trip, all wearing matching SBP t-shirts and belting out a giggly rendition of “O, Canada!” One of these young volunteers, Fitzy Pratt, reflected on what the experience had meant to him.
“It’s just . . . insane to see that there’s people that still, like two years later, are living like this . . . and it feels nice to know that we came here and made a difference in their lives,” he said.
With many more homeowners still in need of aid, SBP and the entire Midlands Flood Recovery Group continue to urge people to do what they can to support recovery efforts, just like Fitzy and his classmates. In time, the group hopes that all 600 who wait will be able to join Lou Alice in saying, “I made it here. I’m back.”