DES MOINES — YOU have to drive north of the city, past I-80, to find the neighborhood of modest homes off NW 26th Street. This is flood plain, and when the rampaging waters of the Des Moines River poured in here from a couple of miles away, they stayed a long time.
Robert and Maxine Porter have lived on one of the narrow lanes here, 56th Place, for 20 years. Their small white clapboard house is flanked by sheds and outbuildings where Mr. Porter, a retired steelworker, kept his tools to work on cars. Those vehicles, including a Chrysler New Yorker that Porter was clearly proud of, are now derelicts, their engines and electronics destroyed by the flood waters.
Porter says he was able to save very little as he fled the waters, even leaving behind two brand-new truck tires. They floated off and "they're probably in Louisiana by now," he says, trying to smile.
The house itself, where the water was four feet deep or more, was ravaged. What hope the Porters have is supplied by the team of volunteers from the Christian Relief Effort, a program coordinated by the First Assembly of God Church in Des Moines. They are chipping away ruined linoleum from the floors and carting bag after bag of refuse from the house.
One of the volunteers, Lee Mekkes, takes a moment to wipe the perspiration from his brow. The houses here are the worst he's seen. It will take at least a day even to get to the stage where you can begin to wash the inside of the dwelling and restore some of the feeling, and aroma, of livability.
THE volunteers have to work hand in hand with the homeowners. Larry Hintz is a chaplain with the First Assembly of God. "We go in and respect the house," he says. "We do nothing without their permission." And spiritual help? "We don't push the spiritual. If they want prayer, we're there."
The spiritual impulse behind the work is unmistakable, however. Hundreds of volunteers are dispatched from the church to do the dirtiest of work, but you get the feeling they wouldn't want to be anywhere else.
Down the street from the Porters, Ron Purk is shoveling dirt away from his garage, where a flood-disabled car has sat for weeks. Mr. Purk is a mechanic with a local landscaping company. He and his wife, Melody, have had their light blue, one-story home for nine years. Purk figures the wall board will have to be removed four feet up from the floor, since what the water didn't get the mildew is attacking.
He, too, has a houseful of energetic volunteers. They're from the Mennonite Disaster Service. This particular team - men young and old, and women dressed in traditional dresses and bonnets - came up from Leon, Iowa, 70 miles to the south. Homer Hershberger talks of other disasters he has seen as he removes the Purks's rotted-out front door. "Seems flooding is worse than anything," he says, because the damage from moisture works its way throughout a house. "It just ruins stuff."
Purk is doubly happy to have the volunteers' help since he's not at all sure he'll get much help from the government. He filled out the forms given to him by a Federal Emergency Management Agency representative some time ago, to enable him to receive money for emergency repairs. "I haven't seen anything," he says. And he doesn't want a loan from FEMA. With the requirement to buy flood insurance, he says, that ends up being more expensive than a regular bank loan.
Volunteers all around Des Moines are trying to help their neighbors clean up and return to normal lives.
On the other side of the city, Salvation Army volunteers are staffing a huge emergency distribution center housed in an empty supermarket building. Jan Johnson is supervising the operation. She describes how the huge stacks of goods here - food to diapers to cleaning supplies - have come in from all over the country. Next week, she says, household items will move aside to make room for shipments of lumber and tools to help people rebuild their homes.
Those being helped are white, black, Latino, Asian. Interpreters come in every day to help break language barriers, Mrs. Johnson says.
Wayne Baker, his wife, and two children make their way toward the point where a Salvation Army staff member will guide them through the maze of foodstuffs and paper goods. The Bakers' home, in the Four Mile Creek area, was partly flooded. But, worse, the gas station and restaurant that employs Mr. Baker was shut down by the flood. "I haven't been able to work since it started," he says, adding that he'll have to stop by the Salvation Army's "special services" desk to see if he can get some help with rent
and other needs.
Another volunteer, Kappy Spencer, says she sometimes feels dismayed that they can do so little to help. People leave with bulging grocery cartloads, but "if that's all you have, that's a pitiful amount," she observes. Yet the people who come through the center are "so appreciative," she says. She has been volunteering for weeks, and clearly has no thought of stopping.
The rewards of volunteering? One of the best, according to Arthur Long, a volunteer at a water-distribution point outside the Salvation Army Center, is the opportunity to meet people from all over.
"Boy, he's right!" chimes in co-volunteer Hunk Anderson, who drove from Green, Iowa, 150 miles away. Someday his own town might be in trouble, says Mr. Anderson, and he has no doubt the people up here would help him out. The golden rule, it seems, is alive and well in Des Moines.