CMU students volunteer to help Allegheny County flood victims recover

Last Saturday, a group of students and faculty from Carnegie Mellon University volunteered to help flood victims repair their water-damaged homes in Etna, a borough of Allegheny County on the north shore of the Allegheny River. ?It brought tears to my eyes. I never expected that people would come to help ? people I?ve never met,? said Etna resident and flood victim Tom Sauers, as volunteers helped carry dozens of five-gallon buckets of dark, sludgy silt out of his basement.
Just over two weeks ago, the remnants of Hurricane Ivan hit Pittsburgh with 5.9 inches of rain in 24 hours. In Etna, the flooding came suddenly and with great speed. ?In two minutes the basement was full. I couldn?t believe it,? recalled Cherry Street resident Wanda Bendin, whose first floor also sustained considerable damage. Benin said that the water ?rushed down from the stream.? A low railway bridge over the nearby Pine Creek is known to collect debris, and when the debris comes loose in heavy rain, the collected water surges forth.
In 1986, the same bridge, owned by CSX Corp. of Jacksonville, Fla., caused another flood in Etna, which killed eight people and resulted in $20 million in damages. Community efforts to persuade the company to raise the bridge yielded no results and were abandoned.
Despite the enormous scale of the damage, some at Carnegie Mellon are concerned that too few people seem to be aware of the devastation. Volunteer Jeff Polack, a sophomore mechanical engineering major, said, ?I didn?t know, and I don?t think my friends know, how bad the damage is.?
Housefellow of New House and Coordinator for Student Development Shernell Smith organized the volunteer trip with the support of Dean of Student Affairs Michael Murphy and University President Jared Cohon and in coordination with North Hills Community Outreach. The group of 10 volunteers from Carnegie Mellon worked with the Calvert Memorial Presbyterian Church of Etna, which has been transformed into a community relief center under the leadership of Rev. Cynthia I. Jackson. The Church has been supporting more than 35 families living on in the neighborhood between Freeport Street and the Allegheny Valley Expressway, where flood waters destroyed furnaces, water heaters, automobiles, furnishings, clothing, and innumerable and invaluable personal effects.
With the financial contributions she has received, Rev. Jackson was able to help victims afford hotel rooms until the waters receded, and she is providing month-long bus passes so that residents whose means of transportation were destroyed can get to places of work and to appointments.
Rev. Jackson has also collected a cache of cleaning supplies, including dozens of bottles of bleach to fight against mold and mildew that already pervades the flooded neighborhood?s dark, wet basements and soaked first floor levels and creates a potential health risk, especially for infants and the elderly.
Despite her successes, Rev. Jackson stated, ?There are definitely not enough people here helping out.?
Sauers, one of the few homeowners who had a comprehensive flood insurance policy, commiserated with others in the area. ?Lots of people are in my situation and haven?t even started [making repairs] yet.?
Alia Lubers, a first-year CIT student, felt compelled to work with the victims after having experienced the generosity of volunteers who helped repair her family?s home in Arizona after it was flooded a year ago. ?I know how hard it is to go through something like this. I know that volunteers make the difference,? remarked Lubers.
?I?m always pushing for CMU students to get more involved in the Pittsburgh community, because they are part of it,? says Smith.
Several more volunteer trips are planned for the coming weeks.