After a flood came streams of neighborly aid.


“Home” is a term instantly understood, even for mobile Americans who, over a lifetime, change residence many times. No matter how long we live at a particular address, there is still that bit of emotional geography where our heart flies to at the mere mention of “home.” In the movies, home usually involves a winding country road, maple trees, a house, a barn.

My heart’s home—Washington’s Lewis County—looks like the movie version, except it’s hillier and the trees are fir. Plentiful rainfall has always been welcome here, as it sustains a strip-mall-free landscape of stunning natural beauty. Green of every shade dominates—or it did until last month, in December, when a severe flood turned this area into brown wasteland.

Now, roads are cracked or washed out; bridges, both wood and concrete, are gone; railroad tracks hover over beds no longer there; streams are choked with debris; here and there, hills gave way to mudslides. Into the night I saw people, kids, too, shoveling the thick mud out of their homes. Those done shoveling ripped out carpet and insulation and burned the wreckage in bins in yards where more mud awaited.

To see all the destruction is heartbreaking. “We’re in for a long haul,” the governor said, referring to recovery efforts.

Yet along with the grim, there is a kind of glow: of human cooperation, people extending a hand (and arms and backs). On top of an outstanding performance by emergency rescue services, the stories of neighbor saving neighbor, neighbor taking in washed-out neighbor, fill the local newspaper in heartening detail. “Nobody waited for help to arrive,” a friend who evacuated several friends told me, “you just got going.”

That instinct to get going goes back a long time in these parts. A settler spirit pulses through the generations who wrest a livelihood here, farming and logging. It’s a sturdy spirit I first observed in my teens, driving my late physician father on his house calls, maneuvering those winding roads. For a fiercely self-reliant local to summon a doctor was “serious”—something I understood once inside their door. Those households were sober and blessedly free of the pretense I came to see existed in the world beyond. Often, those households lacked financial resources, so they paid in chickens or produce, no charity asked or accepted.

Thus when proud, unpretentious people such as these resort to the operatic word “devastated” to describe the damage wrought by the flooding, they do not exaggerate, they are spot on.

It’s not just the descendants of the settlers who have rolled up their sleeves. Past the rescue efforts, the cleanup has generated an outpouring of volunteerism from residents around the state.

United Way in Chehalis (my hometown, in the flood plain) calls the outpouring “phenomenal.” Impressively, that outpouring has continued since the initial emergency—a stream of humanity countering the streams of flooding. Thanks to exemplary coverage by the Seattle and Tacoma newspapers, volunteers are traveling in from the “big cities.” That’s the kind of authentic neighborliness that may ease traditional rural-urban tension.

Volunteerism at the larger level also impresses: Dairymen around the state are donating livestock to replace livestock lost in the county. Distributors are raising funds to shore up local farmers who lost crops, equipment, and facilities.

Still, there is “a world of hurt”: some people have “lost everything.” FEMA is still assessing damage. Mental-health expertise—which the proud settler type might resist anyway—is scant. There’s been a suicide.

The big question is: how to prevent the next flood? My mother, a sturdy soul who watched the waters come within blocks of her house, says, “Next time, it’ll get all of us.” Already, activists are taking stands: for or against clear-cut logging, dredging the rivers, further development in the flood plain (specifically the “big box” stores). At the policy level, the struggle will be rough.

For now, what cheers is this: While I was in the United Way relief center, a grimy group of young people trooped in to return their shovels, having spent the day digging out a home “devastated” by a mud slide. Gesturing toward the volunteers, a mother turned to her young boy and said: “That is what it’s all about, son.”

Indeed. I’m glad that scene played out in a place that, while more brown than green these days, remains my heart’s home.