Oregon Community Finds Many Hearts Make Light Work

Small mountain town unites to mop up after massive flooding uproots trees, drenches businesses, and drowns the main street

It's not unusual for a journalist to drop in on a community that's been hit by an earthquake or hurricane to report on local efforts to pull together, repair the damage, and perhaps gain a stronger sense of community. And then, packing up notebook, laptop computer, and journalistic detachment, go back home to take up other stories.

It's odd and somewhat disconcerting, though, for a reporter on a routine cross-country assignment to come home to a town that's been whacked by nature, had much of its landscape rearranged to the extent that the National Guard, the Red Cross, and the media have become prime players in an unfolding drama. In such a case, is one a reporter first or a citizen?

Returning to Ashland, Ore., a few days ago, I thought about this (for about two seconds) then grabbed my tool of choice: a shovel.

On New Year's Day, heavy rains (a month's worth in 24 hours) uprooted trees and dislodged boulders that clogged the creek running though our small town of 18,000 nestled in the Siskiyou Mountains. The town park was quickly flooded by several feet of heavy waters that also caused major damage to businesses on the town plaza. Part of the main street collapsed.

Water and sewer systems failed. Portable toilets were set up around town, and the Oregon National Guard supplied clean water from tank trucks.

Just down the hill from us, one of the businesses hardest hit belongs to our friend Lin Mattson. When the waters receded, "Small Change," a children's clothing store, was filled with wet sand, mud, and debris.

When officials determined it was safe to enter the building, my wife, Carol, joined friends hauling business files, equipment, and thousands of children's garments to safer (and cleaner) spots. The women set up an assembly line at Lin's house to sort, clean, and organize the clothing.

Lin's husband, Pete, assisted by friends and two brothers-in-law who'd come up from southern California, shoveled tons of sand and mud at the store, wheel-barrowing it through the dark, dank building to the street.

A laundromat in the next town was made available after-hours. Vehicles taking 67 washing-machine loads of muddy clothing to be cleaned returned with casseroles and baked goods supplied by church friends there. High school kids helped with the inventorying. The local Girl Scout organization called to see if help was needed with the scout uniforms at the store.

The owner of "Paddington Station," a gift store in town, offered space for Lin to hold a "flood sale" of the retrieved and freshly laundered children's clothes, and, Lin reports, "The sale went great!" Some customers even insisted on paying the full price for marked-down items.

"That outpouring of goodness is just wonderful," she says, "but it doesn't surprise me. We have the most wonderful town."

Through it all, there have been moments of humor and light-heartedness. People began leaving bits of poetry and messages for neighbors in the chemical toilets that filled the parking lot at the Methodist Church down the hill from our house. "When we went to the watering hole to fill up our jugs and use the Porta-Potties, the humor was a leaven," Carol says.

The skies are clear now, but there's a lot of work to be done to clean up the mess and repair the damage to public and private property. Still, there's much to be grateful for. There was no loss of life or serious injuries. When the call went out for volunteers to help, more than 900 people quickly called city hall.

People have publicly expressed their gratitude.

"As the flood waters rose and fell and rose again ... it was incredibly heartwarming to receive countless offers of support and help throughout the day as we sandbagged," Laurel Hansen, co-owner of a cafe that was surrounded by flood waters, wrote to the Ashland Daily Tidings. "I was once again struck by the thought that I could never find a more wonderful community to live in."

It's a town a peripatetic journalist can be glad to call home.

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