In the Fond du Lac neighborhood in far southwest Duluth, an old pontoon boat perches six feet above the ground, tangled in a pile of trees left behind after the St. Louis River receded following the heavy rains and floods that swamped northeastern Minnesota in mid-June. There's stinky mud everywhere.
The street on the banks of the river is lined with homes that less than a week ago sat chest-high in water. Big piles of debris — ruined appliances, mattresses, furniture — sit outside.
While they try to recover, hard-hit residents can count on help from hundreds of volunteers from across the Midwest. The volunteers have come to the aid of people whose homes were inundated with water, helping them rebuild their lives.
Many have years of experience working in disaster areas. They fill a critical void between when emergency workers leave and hard-hit areas receive state or federal aid.
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Inside one of the homes, a team of nine volunteers has ripped out the walls, insulation, and three layers of old flooring. Volunteer Phil Jacobs sawed out some rotten remnants of the old hardwood floor.
"We have to tear out anything that got wet, places where moisture gets in between it stays," he said. "So we have to dry it out."
For over a decade Jacobs has traveled from his home in St. Paul to help out after disasters, from hurricanes Ike and Katrina which devastated the Gulf Coast, to tornadoes and floods in Iowa and the Dakotas.
"Floods, tornadoes, hurricanes," he said. "I haven't done any volcanoes yet."
Jacobs is a volunteer for NECHAMA a Jewish community disaster response organization.
Hebrew for "comfort," it's based in the Twin Cities. Operations Manager Dan Hoeft said the group has sent about 100 volunteers up to the flood to help homeowners like the woman whose house Jacobs was working on begin the long process of cleaning up and rebuilding. Volunteers "gutted her home down to the studs," he said.
"Before she was here and she had this overwhelming job to do, she didn't know where to start," Hoeft said. "And now with the volunteers that have come in, they've cleared everything out, and they've deconstructed the house, so now she can have a plan, now she can start to see the light at the end of the tunnel."
NECHAMA is part of a coalition of groups group called Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster. The groups respond to emergencies across the country and help homeowners without the resources to clean up on their own.
“People just come out in swarms to help their neighbors and their family, and they do it fast.”Katherine Clements
The volunteers have provided local officials with a big boost, said Cheryl Skafte, Duluth's volunteer coordinator.
"There was a moment where I was like, 'oh man, are we going to have to do this all by ourselves? ' " said Skafte, who started work only nine days before the flood hit.
"It was quickly apparent that there are a lot of folks out there that come with expertise and organization in these types of situations," she said. "And those resources that they've brought have been invaluable to our community."
Skafte said the volunteer response has been overwhelming. In Duluth, 760 people signed up to help clear trails and lug debris out of basements. That doesn't include hundreds more volunteers with national groups like NECHAMA, the Headwaters Relief Organization, and Southern Baptist and United Methodist relief groups. Many more have helped in Carlton and Aitkin Counties.
And that's only the "official" volunteers.
Katherine Clements is director of coordination services for New York-based All Hands Volunteers, has been blown away by what she calls the "Midwest factor."
"People just come out in swarms to help their neighbors and their family, and they do it fast," said Clements, who is in Duluth helping the city coordinate volunteers.
As a result, some people who initially requested volunteer help no longer needed it. But Clements said a lot of people still have gaping holes in their lives.
"They're trying to restore their homes, their lives, their families," she said. "A lot of the people in Fond du Lac won't be in their homes for months and months because of the long-term needs they're going to have."
It's those long-term needs that concern Rob Skutevik, pastor at the Fond du Lac Community Church. He said even for people who are able to return to their homes, there's going to be a lot of stress.
"Three, four weeks, a couple months down the road — rebuilding basements, replacing some of these items — I think that's where you're going to see it maybe start to take its toll on certain people," he said.
But more immediately, Skutevik said, people in Fond du Lac just crave some normalcy in their lives. The pastor hopes to bring a little of that back this Sunday, when he holds the first services inside the church since the floodwaters receded.
Dave Lee, director of public health and human services for Carlton County, said his best estimate is that 1,600 volunteers have come to the aid of homeowners in Carlton County so far. He said those volunteers have made it to 240 of the 380 homeowners who requested help.