In New England, praise for neighbors' help amid floods

Andy Pelis lives on Oxbow island here, a narrow sliver of land in the Connecticut River. He, his family, and most of their neighbors were evacuated from the island last week as the river cut off, and eventually submerged, most of the island.

''People were just fantastic,'' Mr. Pelis says, echoing the sentiment of many of his neighbors. ''Help was readily available.''

Theresa Yurgielewicz, a neighbor of Mr. Pelis, concurs. ''I never knew people cared so much. It was very touching to see them help.''

Five days of heavy rain soaked New England late last week, causing many rivers to flood. Water rose in only certain areas, and by Sunday most rivers had crested and were dropping slowly as the weather cleared.

Yet now, the whole region is awash with accounts of people helping others, and conquering adversity.

After his wife and two children were sent to a motel Wednesday night, Pelis and several neighbors spent hours moving furniture and other belongings. ''First we moved it from the basement to the first floor. Then when we had done four houses,'' he says, ''we moved stuff from the first floor to the second floor. A total of eight moves,'' he emphasizes.

His street was high enough that water never reached the first floor of his house. Only the basement was flooded. He rejoined his family at the Red Cross shelter at Smith College Thursday.

Felice Brooks, the local Red Cross director, says, ''there's been a lot of local concern. People have called offering all sorts of help.''

For instance, she says, Smith College responded ''above and beyond the call of duty. The students have gone for the summer, and the college turned over an entire dormitory to us, including towels, sheets and everything we could want.''

The college has done all kinds of things to make these people comfortable, Ms. Brooks comments. ''It's a lot different from (setting up an emergency shelter in) a school gymnasium.''

More than 40 people spent Thursday night at Smith.

A local diner provided food, some townsfolk provided toys for the half-dozen children at the shelter, and others even took in pets. The owner of the Oxbow marina lent several boats to help with the evacuation process, she says.

''This is the wonderful nature of the New England community,'' Ms. Brooks says. ''People are very helpful.''

Hatfield, a town upriver which was nearly surrounded by flood waters, ''is a very cohesive community,'' she says. ''A lot of people are related to each other , and people simply moved in with others.''

Lynda Wendolowski, one of the three Hatfield selectmen, says, ''people volunteered help, homes, and boats.''

The police, fire department, people from the highway department, and other officials all worked together to coordinate the evacuation process, says another selectmen, Edward J. Lesko, Jr. ''Pieces fell together like a puzzle,'' he says.

In all, about 300 people were evacuated, he says. ''But nobody was hurt,'' says Mr. Lesko, ''and they got out before there was danger.''

''These unexpected situations call for a lot of creativity,'' Ms. Brooks says.

For instance, Charlie Klepacki, an Oxbow islander, expected his wife and newborn twins home from the hospital Friday, she says. The hospital kept them an extra day. But the family spent its first night together at Smith Saturday night.

Sharon Pittman, another guest at the shelter, expressed gratitude for the help she's received by suggesting that one of the twins be named ''Red,'' and the other one ''Cross.''

Ms. Pittman had perhaps the most dramatic story to tell. Her children were evacuated from her ranch in nearby Hadley Wednesday morning. But she and her horse trainer, Greg Hunter, stayed behind to care for their seven horses.

''We had no reason to believe it was a crisis,'' she says. ''We asked about the condition of the dams upstream, and (forecasts on the river's) crest. We had been through this before.''

By evening, she says, it was clear the situation was critical. They tried leading the horses away from the river, but that proved impossible, she says. They turned the horses loose, and set off on their own.

Aided by an eight-foot log that sailed their way, she and Hunter swam for four hours Thursday night to a dike two miles up her driveway.

''We sang to keep our spirits up,'' she says. ''We may have been off key, but we sure helped each other out. And we made it,'' she says. ''That's what counts.''

Her horses were spotted by helicopter on Friday, foraging on a patch of high ground. Two people went out in a canoe and hand-fed them hay the next day. ''People were even concerned for the safety of our animals,'' Ms. Pittman says gratefully.

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