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Published: Saturday, 6/21/2008

Toledo area's volunteers are lending a hand in flood-swept Iowa

BY MATTHEW EISEN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - Homes destroyed. Possessions lost. Spirits deflated.

The flood victims who meet with David Kohler of Lambertville in a vacant strip mall store in Cedar Rapids have experienced some of the worst damage in Iowa.

Mr. Kohler, a retired teacher and lawyer, traveled to the flood-ravaged state with five other volunteers from the Greater Toledo Area Chapter of the American Red Cross.

"We're just working our tails off, working as fast as we can go," Mr. Kohler said in a telephone interview with The Blade.

One flood victim told Mr. Kohler about how she waited until the last possible moment to abandon her home in the face of fast-rising waters. She had to leave her pets behind.

He talked with newly independent 20-somethings who were living along the Cedar River and suddenly had more than eight feet of water engulfing everything in the basements and first floors of their residences.

And countless residents of Palo, a city nine miles northwest of Cedar Rapids, found almost all their possessions drenched by the muddy water.

A client services representative, Mr. Kohler interviews disaster victims for nearly 11 hours a day, using a list of questions to determine just what his organization can provide.

The Red Cross traditionally handles short-term housing concerns, while groups like the Federal Emergency Management Agency try to address long-term problems.

"We can provide for getting some bedding, getting some clothing, getting a pair of shoes," he said. "A lot about interviewing clients is just being able to listen to them, being able to refer them to the right places."

The Toledo-area volunteers started in Cedar Falls on Sunday, but were relocated to Cedar Rapids on Wednesday where the need was greater. Some are working directly with clients; others are assessing damage or helping to manage supplies.

Kim Lumpke, also part of the Toledo group, helps set up housing for volunteers from 48 states, Puerto Rico, and Canada.

She said local residents have been "warm and welcoming."

"It's been very easy to find people places to stay," the Toledoan said. "We've worked with the University of Iowa and Cornell College. We are housing hundreds of volunteers."

The American Red Cross said on its Web site that, as of June 18, the organization had provided 9,144 overnight stays to individuals, served 134,973 meals, and distributed 12,760 cleanup kits to Midwestern flood victims.

Ms. Lumpke described extensive damage caused by the flooding, including guardrails that were ripped from the pavement and washed downstream.

After several days of favorable weather, the floodwaters seem to be receding, Mr. Kohler said.

National Guardsmen and police are preventing residents from entering the most dangerous areas, including the lowest-lying areas that are completely flooded.

"You can start to see the lines on the trees where the flooding was," Mr. Kohler said.

The Toledo Red Cross chapter has trained about 450 volunteers, more than any other chapter in Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, or Kentucky.

"When people came to us after [Hurricane] Katrina, we planned some mass trainings and trained a few hundred people," said Kristen Cajka, head of fund-raising for the Toledo Red Cross chapter.

Diane Dixon, chief volunteer officer for the Red Cross in Toledo, said the Toledo chapter dispatched more than 200 people for Hurricane Katrina and the so-called Wicked Sisters hurricanes during the 2005 hurricane season and now reaps the benefits of that massive effort.

"We did a lot of stuff for retention, and it's worked," she said. "We're in a better place because of our retention efforts."

Ms. Dixon said the Toledo area tends to really embrace volunteerism and that the area benefits when its residents go out on an operation.

"When they come back from an assignment, they come back with a skill set that we can use here," she said. "We'll have a stronger work force to help people here."

Ms. Dixon expects all the Toledo volunteers to be in Iowa for at least another week as part of a predetermined 10-day stint, though she said several already have committed to two weeks or more.

Contact Matthew Eisen at:

meisen@theblade.com

or 419-724-6077.



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