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Today in the Mission Yearbook

A flood of compassion


How one small mountain town banded together to survive a historic flood.

June 21, 2023

(photo provided)

I retired from a 40-year career in ministry and moved from Middle Tennessee to Canton, North Carolina, on a whim. Also known as “Papertown,” Canton is a quaint mountain town on the headwaters of the Pigeon River. Its bustling industrial center is the Evergreen Paper Mill, which has been in operation for over 100 years. The mill has faced down chestnut blights, wrestled with forest management and water regulations since its inception, and defied a hostile buyout in the 1990s when nearly 2,000 employees paid $200 million to purchase it themselves.

I’d always wanted to live in the mountains, and I was enchanted by the story of Canton’s mill. My plan was to sell real estate, supply preach and live happily ever after. Then, three months after I arrived and a year and a half into the global pandemic, a historic flood hit Canton, dropping 14 inches of rain in 12 hours — a once-in-500-year flood throughout Haywood County — and, well, as they say: the best-laid plans. … Over the next year of rebuilding, I came to learn that like its mill, the town of Canton is a tenacious survivor.

Fortunately, the waters receded with minimal damage to my property. Instead of getting a job as I’d originally planned, I volunteered with a small network of ministers in the area. I helped coordinate hot lunches for communities and workers in the hardest-hit region of the flood. Over the next several months, I saw a community rebuild itself through inconceivable and heroic gestures that emerge when survival requires dependence on your neighbor.

I met a retiree who couldn’t swim. She had stepped into her backyard and was swept away by a wall of water to the top of a tree where she clung for four hours until rescue workers could reach her; a young man, dazed for days, reliving being stuck helpless on the road knowing his father was being washed away as he sat there; and the migrant workers who not only lost homes and jobs, but the means to move with the seasons when cars were swept away as well. 

I witnessed heroism: a small group of workers stranded in a community center, picking up the pieces one meal at a time, one blanket at a time, one long hour after another without sleep for days at a time; random passersby whose hearts were touched by the tragedy, like one young Japanese couple touring the Appalachians who stopped to use a church bathroom, unaware that the area had been decimated by the flood and left a generous donation behind; or a bicyclist, out getting “time in the saddle” who came back weekly to volunteer from feeding the crowds, to building homes, to giving money; as well as the victims of the flood themselves, who carried food to their neighbors who had no transportation, who helped shovel out mud-filled homes, and volunteered, because even with all they had lost, there was always someone else who had lost more.

Ultimately, my work on the ground showed me the power of volunteers. How they bridged the gap between agency guidelines and practical needs on the ground, ameliorating complicated situations like the elderly woman who lost her income when her rental trailers were flooded, but couldn’t get help from FEMA because her loss was considered a business loss; or her renters who also couldn’t get help because they didn’t own their own homes. It turns out that floods comprise 70% of our natural disaster losses. The American Flood Coalition points out that “for every dollar spent (preparing for a flood), $7 in future recovery costs can be saved.”

I learned a lot when a crisis unfolded around me. I saw the inconceivable. I saw heroes. But the most amazing thing I saw was that before, within and even after the chaos, the Spirit broods and brings new creation. And that “Kingdom building”  happens hand to hand, face to face, one person at a time. That is the power of volunteering. That is the power of helping your neighbor.

Rev. Jeanne Hoechst, retired Presbyterian pastor, Canton, North Carolina

Today’s Focus: Historic flooding in Canton, NC

Let us join in prayer for:

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Sherri Finke, Ministry Relations Officer, Presbyterian Foundation
Tina Finley, Accounting Clerk, Central Receiving Services, Administrative Services Group (A Corp)

Let us pray

Thank you, God, for the gift of serving. Flow through me with your divine peace, providence and mercy; that I may receive from and I may give others the fruit of your love through Jesus Christ. Amen.