When Michela Schildts earned her psychology degree in 2011 from the University of Florida, she never imagined she would use those skills gleaned in college to calm and consult flood victims in Columbia, South Carolina. Yet, hundreds who suffered complete home loss, partial home loss and even delayed home damage due to latent mold, experience everything from mild anxiety to full-blown post-traumatic-stress disorder and desperately need someone to help them rebuild their dwellings and their dignity.
Since early October 2015, when a perfect storm of flashfloods ravished the Columbia area, Michela has called the city her home; she expects to be here for at least three years as the South Carolina operations manager for the SBP, or St. Bernard Project, which works with AmeriCorps and other agencies, such as the United Way Association of South Carolina, to provide restored homes to homeowners ousted by flood waters.
Hailing from Florida, Michela spent some time in the Peace Corps in Cambodia assisting those still affected by genocide before she landed her first SBP stint in New Orleans where some homes damaged by Hurricane Katrina 10 years ago still await repairs. Michela points out that people there are still trying to rebuild their homes and their lives, as some residents of Columbia and other areas of South Carolina will also probably be doing for a few years to come.
“When things are disrupted on such a large scale, it really disturbs the foundation of the way people live,” says Michela, who has learned this truth up close and personally. In fact, it was the day after the historic flood that fateful early morning one year ago this month that Michela was asked to pack her bags and head north. She hit the ground running, fielding applications from hundreds affected who urgently sought help.
Reese May, national recovery director at SBP, says that natural disasters are, unfortunately, a reality for many in recent years. “If you look at the statistics on a 10- to 20-year timeline, they seem to be getting more severe,” he says. When a disaster occurs, it is often homes that are most affected. Reese says that SBP initially met with Governor Nikki Haley and Mayor Steve Benjamin to collectively assess the damage to homes in the area. Reese adds that South Carolina does not have groups like SBP in place all the time because the state is not prone to disasters on such a monumental scale as the historic flood –– the last time South Carolina experienced a large-scale disaster was Hurricane Hugo in 1989.
SBP’s mission, according to its statement, is: “To shrink the time between disaster and full recovery by ensuring that disaster-impacted citizens and communities recover in a prompt, efficient and predictable manner.” It was founded out of necessity in St. Bernard Parish in Louisiana post-Katrina. SBP essentially provides skilled and volunteer labor crews to repair homes after a disaster. AmeriCorps provides members from all across the United States who serve as coordinators and site supervisors. The construction process is funded through a variety of financial support methods, including partnerships with such large corporations as Toyota and UPS.
Plus, there are area supporters; for example, One SCFund, Michael J. Mungo Foundation and BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina — as well as United Way of the Midlands — are some of the big supporters in this area, according to Michela. Plus, there are federal and various other grants obtained including the partnership with Richland Restores which utilizes CDBG funds. Building material costs, shop vacs and dehumidifiers are expensive, but most everyone on the construction team is a volunteer, so overall construction costs are kept well below market rates.
Since its inception in 2006, SBP has helped 1,060 families not only in New Orleans, but also in such disaster areas as Joplin, Missouri, Staten Island, New York and San Marcos, Texas, West Virginia and southern Louisiana. Typically, SBP has assisted areas hit by tornadoes, hurricanes and floods, and volunteers work for a week or more at a time. Youth and college groups, church members, clubs and others learn how to follow instructions regarding construction components such as dry wall, insulation, flooring and moldings.
AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps, based on the necessary work corps established due to the Depression in the 1930s, focuses on the idea that civic responsibility is the duty of all and that more can be accomplished if citizens work together in local communities. Young people ages 18 to 24 can participate in a 10-month program, be provided a living allowance, and then learn valuable skills to offer assistance where needed after a disaster. Those older than 24 can also participate in a program that has more managerial opportunities and a higher (albeit still minimal) living allowance.
United Way, as the State Service Commission, funds AmeriCorps programs such as SBP. In addition, it serves as a “bridge” for volunteerism, points out Carson Carroll, deputy director of the South Carolina Service Commission for the United Way Association of South Carolina. “An organization might say I have a project that needs volunteers, and the individuals might say I want to volunteer, so we would put them together.”
Carson and her colleague, Natasha Jenkins, director of member services and strategic communications, were thrust into uncharted territory the week following the flood. “Often we serve as logistics coordinators,” she says. “There is so much work behind the scenes that goes along with homeowners needing help. It takes time to get all the pieces in place. But it has been wonderful to see organizations working together to make the process move faster.”
She adds, “The goal is to get the homeowners back in their homes as soon as possible after a disaster occurs. We are all focused on the whole person — not just the home. We want to get families back to their normal lives. We see the rebuilding of a home as a means of helping individuals.”
For Michela, that often has meant using her psychology training to deal with emotions. “Some homeowners have understandably been pretty upset. We’re giving them a great gift by repairing their home, but it’s still so traumatic. There are people working in your house for a long time, you have to go somewhere else while we are there, and your walls will never be the same as they were before the flood.”
Because crawl spaces in many older South Carolina homes are not typically well vented, mold became an issue even in homes not flooded up through the flooring. Mold, in fact, can be almost as destructive to a home as full immersion in flood waters. “It grows and keeps coming back if you don’t fix the problem,” says Michela.
Joseph Henry and Persilla, his wife, like so many Columbia residents after the flood, became quick students of the dangers of mold. They own a home just off of Main Street. For 30-plus years, the home was owned by Persilla’s mother — known for generations as the neighborhood’s Candy Lady. Then Persilla inherited the home, and the Henrys lived there for 17 years before the flood waters off of nearby Monticello and other roads converged and flowed into their yard.
“We thought we would have to evacuate,” says Joseph. “The water came to the top of the porch but it didn’t get into the house.”
The couple thought they were spared, but then mold began showing up on baseboards. They wiped it off with a special mold eradication solution purchased at a local hardware store, but it grew and spread rapidly. Soon there was mold on the window sills and the walls, explains Michela. It took over.
With children and grandchildren as frequent visitors, the Henrys knew they needed to vacate. They learned about SBP through their insurance agency, FEMA and ultimately United Way. “FEMA told us we were not damaged enough by flood waters to get their help, and our insurance company wouldn’t help, so SBP became a life saver.”
For at least three months, the Henrys hunkered in a small, extended-pay motel while AmeriCorps and SBP volunteers replaced and repaired whole rooms, walls, flooring and attic space.
Daily, Persilla and Joseph visited the volunteers. “We are so, so grateful,” says Joseph. “Otherwise we would have to give up our house. We went by every day and asked them if they needed anything, thanked them, and just let them know how much we appreciated them. We met volunteers from all over — Louisiana, California, New York. We tried to talk to all of them and let them know how much we loved them for what they did for us.”
The Henrys were and are just one family in the sea of need that resulted from weeks of rain and breached dams on that fateful day last October. Michela says she knows that Richland County’s research shows at least 800 cases in Richland County alone. Twelve months later, a multitude of families are still reaping the consequences of so much water and, in some cases, such a rapid flow of water. For example, the flooding burst so many pipes and exposed so much sewage that some homeowners must deal with toxins on their properties as well.
Calls still flow in. The process for SBP and AmeriCorps has been steady, with at least 12 homes completely rebuilt, seven partially rebuilt, another nine or so under construction, and some 55 or more eligible and awaiting volunteer teams. “Our goal is to finish at least 40 between now and June 2017,” says Michela.
Other logistics issues that emerged overnight after the flood involved where to house those volunteers coming in from outside of Columbia and the state. With approximately 9,000 families statewide suddenly homeless and needing temporary housing immediately after the flood, the question became: Where do we house the volunteers? Natasha was one person who helped look for solutions.
She shares, “We learned quickly that in a lot of cases we are not necessarily prepared, no matter how much training we have. Everyone was caught off guard by the flood to some extent, but when you look at our community it is so pleasant to see how we came together. It was all about helping one another, figuring out solutions. What I learned from this experience this past year is that we are all able to come together to help.”
Carson adds, “It’s been defining in a lot of ways. Personally, one of the things I learned about disasters is that they are non-discriminatory. Every walk of life was impacted by this flood, and every walk of life has helped us recover. The community is about reciprocity … reminding us that we’re all in this together.”
Reese, too, has been impressed with the response from the Columbia community. “Bold goals and sound leadership is what I’ve seen here. You can’t really compare disasters because each one is different, but people here have been friendly, relentlessly positive and upbeat. The human spirit is incredible –– and that’s what keeps volunteers coming back. There is heart to what is happening in South Carolina.”
Michela says she is still getting at least five calls a day from homeowners needing help. Often, client service coordinators on the SBP team just listen to their frustrations before beginning to work on efficiently meeting their needs. It is a skill she expects to continue to hone over the next many months as Columbia recovers from a once-in-a-thousand-years disaster.