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Community answers the call for help through flood

  • 4 min to read

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” — Fred Rogers

Julee Smith wasn’t sure where all of the volunteers came from as floodwaters inched over her 9.4-acre Mojonnier Road property toward her home Friday afternoon.

With five horses and four goats to evacuate, water from the nearby Walla Walla River merging into Stone Creek deluged her driveway and pasture, closing in on her house.

Lightfoot’s Towing, during what’s regarded as one of the worst floods in community history, put out a call on social media to help anyone in need of sandbags. The truck arrived at the Smith home with supplies and a crew of helpers.

Among the volunteers: Milton-Freewater residents Tanner Simmons and Becca Daniel, who had been evacuated from their own home in Milton-Freewater that day. From up the road, a parade of Walla Walla University students arrived to help. Smith, a massage therapist who left work Friday afternoon to rescue the property with her husband, Matt, doesn’t know how they all knew to arrive.

The story of help and humanity rang throughout the Valley as floodwaters intruded Friday.

All around the Valley, businesses and community members looked for ways to help through the distress.

At Baker Boyer Bank, employees started the day with a message from President and CEO Mark Kajita: “This is OUR community, we need to do everything we can do to help support it,” he said.

The Milton-Freewater branch had been closed with the community’s evacuation notice, and the College Place Contact Center was moved to Eastgate to be out of harm’s way.

“Then we thought outside the box, what could we do to help?” Kajita said.

Employees who were first-responders and those who felt they needed to be home for safety reasons, as well as any employee who wanted to volunteer were all released without having to use their paid time off.

Coincidentally, human resources employee Levi Waggoner, was among them, and because of the arrangement he was able to help at the Mojonnier home of his sister, Julee.

It’s possible, Julee Smith wondered, the unknown volunteers knew to arrive because of word from Frog Hollow Farm owner Amy Dietrich.

Deitrich would have already known the hardship of what was to come. The channel at the edge of her own farm rose into the property. On Thursday, tomato cages were removed from the area. But Friday, the need for help was more dire as the water continued moving to the fertile soils that grow the numerous crops serving the Valley and beyond.

She and her husband received help from volunteers — many from Walla Walla University, where an ongoing relationship keeps her supplied in students during harvest.

At Smith’s Mojonnier property — located across from what once upon a time was Meador Park — college students, Lightfoot’s crews and others spent two hours working to protect the home. Wentland’s tractor, more typically used on the fields where he grows alfalfa, wheat and corn just a couple of miles away, was loaded repeatedly with sandbags through what became about 3 feet of water up the driveway to the house.

“I know there are people who are going through worse. Their homes are in the water,” Smith marveled after the home was surrounded with an estimated 100 to 200 sandbags.

Filling sandbags throughout the weekend have been armies of volunteers at Koncrete Industries.

Scores of people have filed in to fill thousands of sandbags offered by Koncrete for community use.

As a thank-you, Baker Boyer supplied 200 meals from Jimmy Johns to those toiling with shovels.

Among them Friday were Walla Walla Valley Academy students, who given the choice to help with flood relief volunteered to spend three hours shoveling sand into bags.

Social media posts were rife with similar tales. Saturday morning, a woman praised helpers for rescuing her husband as he was swept up in the floodwaters on Cummins Road.

So many donations of goods were arriving at the Walla Walla Red Cross Shelter at the Walla Walla Fairgrounds Pavilion that items had to be turned away. There was simply no more capacity, said Heather Lee, public information officer for Walla Walla County Emergency Management.

“The community support has been amazing,” Lee said Saturday.

She said crews were compiling a database of people with special equipment or capacity to help — such as trailers or pasture space — so they can be connected to individuals with needs through command posts and shelters.

The Red Cross space housed eight people overnight Friday. The Fairgrounds also accepted livestock displaced by the floods.

Also taking in animals was the Blue Mountain Humane Society, where more than two dozens evacuated pets nestled in safely and another seven strays arrived through the process.

Donations for food and supplies also came in to help in the process.

Meanwhile, meals for humans were also in supply as resources pooled to help. Bon Appetit at Whitman College donated 300 meals to help feed families. The Red Cross distributed vouchers for the dishes.

At Providence St. Mary Medical Center, great pride was taken in the maintenance of staffing levels through the trauma, as well as the arrival of supplies.

One employee whose home was flooded optioned the hospital’s offer to staff to stay in the Herring House. That facility and the hospital’s Sleep Center were made available to employees in need.

At the Red Cross shelter, where the general public was encouraged to seek help, Providence supplied four beds, along with supplies of masks, gloves, hand sanitizer and general hygiene items.

Many in the community found shelter with family members. But local hotels also offered deep discounts to assist.

At Dragon’s Gate Brewery across the state line, co-owner Jennifer Gregory worked Saturday to coordinate clean water drop-off.

“We have friends, family and neighbors who have lost homes, property and much more,” she wrote on Facebook. “Roads are completely gone. Some are unable to get out.

“There is no electricity, no land lines and no cell service. Many have no clean water.”

The brewery and taproom encouraged donations of cases of water to help residents. More donation updates are expected to follow.

At the Mojonnier property of the Smith family, the catharsis of protecting the home was short-lived as the reality of underwater pastures set in.

The extent of damage is yet to be determined. As with the entirety of the region, infrastructure will need to be restored.

Matt Smith brainstormed ways the volunteerism might continue when the water returns to its proper place. He wondered if a coalition may form of property owners to help each other.

“It’s overwhelming to think of cleaning this place up,” Julee Smith said.

“Hand on heart, the help is incredible.”

Vicki covers business and economic development, including tourism, the Port of Walla Walla and the Strictly Business column, as well as features. She has been reporting for the Union-Bulletin since late 2001.