Local group provides jobs, cleans up from flood

September 1, 2010
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Rosemary Marsh was sure her home would withstand the heavy rains of July 23. The brick Keystone Avenue home she shares with her sister had never leaked before – and it had weathered many a storm over the past two decades.

But when the 73-year-old peered down her basement steps the morning after the rain, she was shocked to see several inches of water and sewage. Not a lot – for that, the sisters were grateful – but enough to damage their water heater, kill their dryer and bring harmful mold spores into their home.

With a health issue on their hands and boxes of water-logged clothes blocking their path, the elderly sisters called on a group of strangers to help them – the Flood Response Team of the Westside Health Authority.

Last Friday, a group of six men showed up at their door. They cleared out their water-damaged belongings, scrubbed the floors, cut out their mold-infested drywall and disinfected their basement. And they did it for free. There’s still work to be done – but the immediate problem is solved.

“We couldn’t have done it ourselves,” Marsh said.

Marsh and her sister are not the only ones calling on the Westside Health Authority for help. For the past two weeks, the organization’s 20 men – all Austin residents – have been going into homes affected by the storms and making them livable again.

Residents lives were turned upside-down when heavy rains rocked the Chicago area July 23 and 24, sending water and backed-up sewage flooding into basements and first floors across the city. The situation was so devastating in some places that President Obama declared Cook County a federal disaster zone on Aug. 19.

At about four homes per day, the teams had completed 24 homes as of last Friday, said Westside Operations Manager Don Lighthall, and they don’t plan to stop until the end of September.

So far, the response from residents has been overwhelming.

“These people are happy. They’re really happy,” said Chantes Johnson, who leads one of the flood response teams. “They have family members who don’t help them, and we’re their last resort.”

But some say the real benefit of the program is larger than cleaning up from the flood – it’s giving work to Austin men who desperately need both a paycheck and a way to keep busy to stay away from crime.

Participants were hired through the state-funded jobs program, Put Illinois to Work. Some, organizers admit, have criminal backgrounds – but they’ve been carefully screened, and none were hired who had any history of theft, sex offenses or other potentially problematic pasts.

“We wanted to make sure we selected people who were trustworthy and credible,” said Virgil Crawford, an organizer for Westside Health Authority.

The help is free to homeowners, but not for the West Side social service agency. While the state subsidizes much of the program, Lighthall says the men’s wages are costing the organization about $1,000 per week.

The organizers’ hope is the spirit behind the program – employing men from our own community – will grow. That, they say, will eventually mean less violence on the streets.

“We can expand on this … and hopefully create some jobs for some of our young people,” Crawford said.

If we hire one person, “that one person is one person less who we have to worry about being a perpetrator of violence.”

Crawford also urges those who will be receiving federal grant money for their flood damages to put that cash back into their community by hiring local African-American men to do their rebuilding and repairs. Employees at the Westside Health Authority say they are creating a database of local, qualified contractors, and can help make recommendations.

That puts flood victims in an interesting and powerful position, Crawford said.

“They can do something about this violence with this claim check they have,” he said.

If you need help cleaning up your home from the storm, contact the Westside Health Authority at 773-622-8477.

austintalks.org@gmail.com

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