Linda, 61, shuffles down the dampened street to the site.
It’s a short walk down Butler Court but a difficult one.
“The water came through here,” Linda says pointing to her neighbor’s home that still stands, “and rose halfway up the windows.”
It’s been a year since 4.5 feet of water destroyed her mobile home, her belongings, her memories, nearly everything.
Standing on the cracked concrete slab where her house once stood, she cries.
“It’s so hard coming back here. I still can’t believe it.”
Linda’s son Damon, 45, puts an arm around her. They were one of three families in the neighborhood that lost their homes in the December 2015 flood. Some lived high on the hill and their homes survived. Others, like Linda, lived low.
For seven days, rain fell until the Meramec River spilled over.
“At first, it was pretty. You could see the sun and trees reflecting on the water,” Linda recalls. “It was so pretty.”
Linda watched the water rise.
“It won’t hit us,” she told Damon.
But it did.
Little did she know rain would fall until it met her chest, until her floors buckled and her paneling split, until her washer and freezer choked with water, until her van submerged, until her memories and house of 13 years were destroyed.
When a pipe beneath the house burst, she knew it was time. She had to leave. She couldn’t risk her life for the inevitable.
“The worst bad dream I’ve ever had,” Linda calls it.
Linda and Damon were the last in the neighborhood to evacuate. Each packed a suitcase of clothes as family loaded a canoe with her dog, birds and anything else they could manage.
On the way out, she grabbed her doll, the last gift from her husband before he died five years ago, and said goodbye.
The flood killed more than 20 people in Missouri and Illinois.
It caused several hundred million dollars of damage and left millions of tons of debris in its wake.
“We survived,” Linda says.
A team of rescuers plucked Linda and Damon from the frigid waters and brought them to safety. A few miles away, at a United Way-supported American Red Cross emergency shelter, trained volunteers greeted them with blankets.
“I don’t know if I was shivering from the cold or from my nerves,” Linda recalls, “but they made us feel so welcomed.”
Linda and Damon were among hundreds the Red Cross helped in the days that followed the disaster. Volunteers served at sites across the area, giving affected residents warm showers, dry clothes and hot meals. Most importantly, they provided a safe place to stay while determining next steps.
Most people in the shelters had lost everything – their homes, belongings and memories – and having these basic, vital resources meant everything. It gave them hope.
“It felt like someone cared,” Linda says.
For that first week after the flood, Linda didn’t have to worry about how her and her son would eat.
She didn’t need to fear where they’d sleep, how they’d shower or get clean clothes. She didn’t have to worry about surviving; she knew they would.
The Red Cross took the uncertainty and doubt away so Linda and Damon could heal and plan.
“I’ve never known an organization that reaches out to help so much,” Linda says. “If they hadn’t opened a shelter, we would’ve been on the streets.”
Both Linda and Damon are disabled – she has back issues; he has epileptic seizures – which makes losing everything that much harder.
“What are you going to do now?”
It’s a question Linda heard many times after the water receded.
Her answer: “I don’t know but we survived.”
On New Year’s Day, a day known for new beginnings, Linda waded through ankle-deep water to see what was left.
It was the first time she’d seen her home since the rescue.
Her Christmas tree welcomed her, smashed on the ground. Ornaments bobbed down the water-logged hall.
The day she left, Linda made tough choices on what to take in the canoe. Her kids put heavy items on high shelves, hoping water wouldn’t reach them. Now, those shelves lay submerged.
The groceries she’d gotten from the food pantry the day before it rained were mush. Things she’d put on her bed, trying to preserve, were now sodden and ruined.
Clothes that hung in her closet lay in a wet heap on the floor. The chest of memories her late-husband brought back from his time in the military was unrecognizable.
“I can fix this,” her middle son said. “Let me rebuild the house.”
But as they peeled away wallpaper and linoleum, they discovered the supports had begun to rot.
“That’s when I knew I wouldn’t be able to save it,” Linda says.
Two days later, her first great-grandchild was born.
She points to a photo taken that day; his tiny fingers make a peace sign.
“An omen,” she says, “that 2016 would be better.”
And it was.
Linda and her family spent two months sorting and salvaging what they could before demolishing the home.
Her landlord had space available in an apartment up the hill for those affected by the flood, which allowed Linda and Damon to move directly from the Red Cross shelter to a place to call home.
The space is cramped, but they’re thankful for what they have – “a roof over our heads” – and what’s to come – a new home, high on the hill, safe from future floods.
“This was a wake-up call,” Linda says. “Don’t ever say it won’t happen to you.”
“I look out this window, see cars drive by and think to myself: that was under water,” Linda says.
She holds a little stuffed fox, one of the few trinkets that survived the flood.
“If it wasn’t for the Red Cross, I would’ve sat at the edge of the water and thought, ‘Please, no, don’t take my home.’”
And while her home didn’t survive, “we did.”
“You can overcome any situation if the proper resources are there to help,” Damon says. “You just have to reach out.”
About the American Red Cross of Eastern Missouri
The American Red Cross provides compassionate care to those in need. They share a mission of preventing and relieving suffering, here at home and around the world, through five key service areas: disaster relief, supporting America’s military families, lifesaving blood, international services, and health and safety services. The American Red Cross has been a United Way member agency since 1924.
Some photos courtesy of Linda, Damon and the American Red Cross.