It’s been more than three months since parts of the Detroit area were flooded by torrential rains. People are still cleaning up the mess. Organizations from around the nation are helping, but it’s a huge job.
In Berkley, AmeriCorps volunteers are in Duane Van Geison’s basement, cutting up waterlogged wood frames and cleaning up a mess. It smells like rotting wood and mildew.
Upstairs, Van Geison is huddled by a space heater, trying to keep warm. He’s 74 years old and disabled. He's no longer able to walk downstairs.
“I didn’t realize I still had water in the basement until three weeks ago when I called to get the furnace going because it started getting cold. And, he told me there was still six inches of water in the basement,” Van Geison said.
He’s letting the AmeriCorps unit do what it needs to do to make his house safe and clear the way for the furnace repairman to come back.
"They came and pumped out the water last week and then they started cleaning out Monday, cleaning out all the damaged material, which I have plenty of.”
Van Geison likes to collect stuff. And there was a lot of stuff in the basement. There are two mountains of demolition-grade black plastic bags full of waterlogged material at the curb.
Matt Frintner is one of the crew decked out in hazmat suits and respirators.
“In this house, we’re taking out all the garbage, and just anything that has mold on it at this point, or anything that got wet, and we’re leaving it at the curb for the city to pick up. And then once we’re done with that, we’re going to take out all the paneling in the basement. And then we have to sanitize the floors and the walls,” Frintner explained.
Like the Minnesota crew with Frintner, AmeriCorps workers from New Jersey, Louisiana, northern California, and St. Louis, Missouri, are in metro Detroit, helping people whose basements were flooded with backed-up sewage during the August floods.
Sara Ann Levine says some people figured once the water went down, they were okay.
“And sometimes it does take a while for people to understand that they do need to get rid of this stuff and that just because the waters went away doesn’t mean that the things that are in their basement are still safe to keep,” Levine said.
That can be hard when those things are photographs, old letters, or mementos.
But, that can all be a breeding ground for black mold, which can cause health problems.
While they’ve cleaned up more than 120 houses, there are nearly 400 more homes that need help. There are only 35 AmeriCorps volunteers doing the work. Levine says unlike a disaster like a tornado, this one is hidden, and the media attention went away shortly after the flooding receded.
"When there’s not that big publicity push, we don’t get a lot of volunteers that come out, and most of the time on disasters the clean-up is really driven by volunteers,” Levine said.
Levine adds people who want to volunteer can call Michigan’s Helping Hand number: 2-1-1. And people who need help with clearing out water-damaged basements can also call 2-1-1.