(Laura Simon) [Order this photo]
Russell, CEO and president of Bernie, Mo.-based Hope International, keeps a stark photograph in his mind. It's a picture of a family pulling up to their water-ravaged home in a johnboat, piling in whatever remained of their soaked possessions. Their heads were down; they had lost everything.
Russell said there was only one thing he could do.
"I wept," he said Tuesday afternoon, sitting at a table at the back of the gymnasium of Morehouse's First General Baptist Church. "When you see that kind of devastation and no hope, it changed me."
Nearly two months after the floods, the water is gone, but it has left a scar on the community that once boasted a population of 1,000 people. Scores of residents have left town, away from the mold, the muck and the bad memories, while mountains of rotted wood and shredded drywall fill pockets of otherwise vacant lots.
But hope is building in Morehouse, according to Russell, other volunteers and the residents who have spent long hours working to bring the community back from the brink. The volunteers have come from all over the region, some from distant parts of the nation, to lend a hand.
"Everybody is taking responsibility, saying we want to help," Russell said. "That's when America's strong. They call it the Heartland for a reason: The heartbeat of America is helping those who have been broken."
Hope International, through the assistance of other faith-based groups and contributors, has delivered food, clothing, furniture and basic needs to the people of Morehouse. The gymnasium, where a gilt-framed picture of Christ presides over a crowded disaster relief operation center and a communion table entreating its church to "Do This in Remembrance of Me," isn't as active as it once was -- a sign perhaps that things are getting better.
Hope International's volunteers and members have gutted plenty of broken homes, and they've supplied much of the drywall, plywood and manpower to bring back some of the 280 properties -- about a third of the town -- affected by the floods.
They've been joined by the secular All Hands Volunteers, a Massachusetts-based disaster-relief organization with the slogan "Maximum impact, minimum bureaucracy." Volunteers brought their chain saws, their hammers and their hearts to assist Morehouse, said All Hands volunteer coordinator Megan Key.
The Durham, N.C., woman had just finished up her graduate work in sociology when she got the call to help out in St. Louis, hit by a tornado on Good Friday. Not long after, she was dispatched to Morehouse, her fifth disaster relief project in the past three and a half years. Per capita, Key said, Morehouse's flood damage was the most destructive she has seen.
But she has found powerful stories of hope and resiliency here, too. She thinks of three elderly brothers, one hospitalized with cancer, the others suffering their own serious health problems. Their home was in bad shape, Key said, but the brothers are sticking together.
"It's been this effort to get the home ready for the one brother to move back in so they can spend time at home, rather than living in the hospital, which he's been in most of the last couple of weeks," she said.
Katherine Moulton, an All Hands volunteer coordinator from Austin, Texas, has watched a husband and wife serve others after losing everything. The couple, whose home has been condemned and since demolished, cook meals at the church nearly every night, among other volunteer work, Moulton said.
"They lost everything, but they're so willing to give back to others," she said. "And they never take pity on themselves. They're just doing the best they can."