Corrections or additions?

This column by Kathleen McGinn Spring was prepared for the April

20, 2005 issue of U.S. 1

Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Digging Out from the Flood

Not more than two weeks ago I was cleaning out my front porch,

planning to rid it of every bit of clutter ahead of the spring porch

sitting season. A big white bucket, sporting the logo of the Salvation

Army, sat in one corner, untouched since the floods of September

invaded my neighborhood, the Island section of Trenton. I was quite

sure that I would never use the bucket, and in my quest for porch

purity, picked it up and headed for the curb. Halfway there, I turned

back. I couldn’t throw it away. Its connotations as a symbol of the

kindness of strangers were just too strong.

Now that bucket has company. When the water receded after the most

recent flooding, on April 2, the Salvation Army delivered another

clean-up kit, and the Red Cross gave us one too. Chipping in cleaning

supplies were Home Depot, which also provided store discount coupons,

and Wal-Mart.

Both organizations put dozens of volunteers and staffers into my

neighborhood and into the other communities inundated by the Delaware

on its most impressive rampage since 1955.

Diane Concannon, public relations director for the American Red Cross

of Central New Jersey, says that her chapter dispatched 60 volunteers

and 20 staff members, and called upon its national headquarters for 9

more volunteers. "Some of them were doing 8 to 12 hour shifts, and

coming right back again," she says. "It was incredible to see. I don’t

know if some of them slept."

In addition to providing clean up kits – full of sturdy gloves,

garbage bags, clotheslines, and lots of Clorox – the Red Cross fed

residents, emergency responders, and the scores of electrical and

plumbing contractors who were working long hours to restore basic

services.

Volunteers also went door to door, finding out which families needed

more extensive help. Pam Weiss coordinated that effort. A resident of

West Windsor until a recent move to northeastern Pennsylvania, she

made the three hour trip back to help out the chapter at which she had

received her volunteer training in 1994. She had traveled extensively

as the wife of a Proctor & Gamble executive, Stephan Weiss, and now

travels to aid disaster victims.

"Let’s see," she says, trying to recall where she has gone to help

disaster victims. "I’ve been to Texas for floods, and to West Virginia

for floods. I’ve been to New Orleans on a hurricane. And during

Hurricane Floyd, I was in Bound Brook."

A former book store owner and emergency medical technician (EMT), she

enjoys the work. "It’s exciting to head off somewhere you’re not

familiar with," she says. "It’s very satisfying to help somebody." At

every disaster, she recounts, there is someone who hugs her and says

"’I couldn’t have gotten through this without you.’"

Early on, there was not a lot of gratitude in Trenton. At least not

from residents. One volunteer, an exceptionally friendly man, met

little more than blank stares as he attempted to lure residents to his

stash of hamburgers. Watching the rising water from behind barricades,

few were in the mood for good cheer – or burgers. A day or two later,

as we attended one in a series of update meetings at Trenton High

School West, we had to be bullied into accepting Red Cross

hospitality. "Those people worked hard to get you dinner. Get in there

and eat it!" one police woman barked at us.

But as we were allowed to return home, and began mucking out, Red

Cross dinners quickly became highlights of the day. On Saturday night,

two days after we began the clean-up, many of us drifted down to the

Red Cross canteen. Sitting on the grass overlooking the slowly

retreating river, we feasted on ziti and green salad, which the Red

Cross put together with the help of Amici’s restaurant. It was an

opportunity to pause and to catch up on how friends were faring. And

many of us, after a full day of hauling muddy cellar contents, swore

that it had been a long time since we had tasted anything so good.

Throughout the day, as we were ferrying soggy Christmas ornaments and

ruined appliances to the curbs and into dumpsters, Red Cross

volunteers walked the streets, carrying boxes filled with Oreos and

bottles of water. Beyond sustenance, they offered a most upbeat form

of sympathy, cheering us along.

By prior arrangement, the Red Cross anchored the southern end of the

Island, while the Salvation Army took the northern end. Russ

Hendrickson, the organization’s disaster manager for the state,

coordinated the effort. But, he says, the lion’s share of work was

done by the Trenton Corps, headed up by Captain Chuck Balcom and his

wife, Rose Balcom, who lead the Salvation Army church on West State

Street. The Corps relied on both staff and volunteers to serve three

meals a day.

While the Red Cross was the staple for dinner – Amici’s pasta

alternating with Chicken Holiday’s fried chicken and salad – the

Salvation Army’s canteen became the place to meet for breakfast. Its

made-to-order egg sandwiches were an instant hit, but there was also

cereal, fruit, and low fat milk.

The canteen from which the meals were served had been purchased in

2000 by the Trenton Corps. Six months after it was delivered it went

to New York City in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. "It was at the

medical examiner’s office for four or five months," says Hendrickson.

Not content with manning the canteen, the Salvation Army staffers and

volunteers, like their Red Cross counterparts, roamed the Island

looking for people who were too busy to stop working. "We like to be

mobile," says Hendrickson. "People need to stop and eat. If they’re

not coming to us, we go to them."

Weiss says that the meals the Red Cross and the Salvation Army serve

give a whole new meaning to the term "comfort food." Sure, most

residents could have gone out and gotten meals. It wouldn’t have been

easy, what with the curfews, the police check points, and the narrow

streets chock-a-block with fire engines and utility trucks, but it

would have been entirely possible.

But, Weiss points out, "you would have had to clean up before going

out." Ture. Few supermarkets, let alone restaurants, would have

welcomed our top-to-toe brand of slick, sticky, deep-brown mud. More

importantly, the effort that the Red Cross and the Salvation Army went

to "shows that someone cares about you," she says, "that someone will

bring you something. It’s the epitome of comfort food."

Yes, and the residents of the Island, and of all the river communities

in Mercer, Hunterdon, and Bucks Counties, are deeply grateful to both

organizations and to every one of their volunteers.

— Kathleen McGinn Spring


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