Sunday, March 9, 1997
Can victims count
on us for next job?

The Cincinnati Enquirer

FALMOUTH, Ky, - The water is gone. You can see the town again. Soon, Pendleton County High School will be a school again.

Last week, it was a shelter, a disaster relief center with cots in the gymnasium underneath the ''Our Band Rocks'' banner. Help was everywhere. A swarm of Kentucky Air National Guardsmen from Louisville in camouflage and smart berets. Some bright yellow windbreakers with ''Southern Baptist Convention Disaster Relief.'' Red Cross volunteers. Reporters and photographers, lots of them.

A poster just inside the doorway offered an 800 number and promised ''Even the IRS can help.''

The parking lot was clogged with trucks delivering more supplies. The Humvees were lined up in back.

About two dozen kids were having the time of their lives, tweaking the bulbous red nose of a clown from the Ringling Brothers circus and cheering a Frisbee-chasing border collie. McDonald's was handing out free burgers.

Need an infant Swingomatic? There were seven of them. A little girl with chicken pox, quarantined in the school library, was fortified with plenty of peanut butter cheese crackers and two kinds of juice.

A communications center was set up in a back hallway with telephones for victims. Nearby, there were piles of soap, boxes of toys, bales of carefully laundered, previously owned underwear. A man, red-faced, searched carefully through a bag of bras, asking a passerby ''where the size is marked on these things,'' adding unnecessarily that ''it's for my wife.''

He found at least a dozen in her size.

It's not as though it's too much stuff, that it's not all needed. But people weren't taking things because they had no place to put them. They had everything but what they really wanted. Home.

Worse than expected

The first close look at their homes was on board a bus on Thursday. It was worse than most people expected. It wasn't just wet and muddy. The Licking River, which normally winds politely around Falmouth, changed course last weekend, taking a shortcut to the Ohio River and bullying its way right through the heart of town.

People on the bus could see a place that looked like it had been slapped around, a barn in the middle of the road, cars scattered, houses twisted off their foundations.

Helping each other

Little towns like this one - fewer than 3,000 there when everybody is at home - are the kinds of places where neighbors normally take care of each other. Now, they will need outsiders.

After measuring the river in inches and giving breathless hourly reports, now we are talking about tons of mud and months, maybe years, of rebuilding and cleanup.

Vice President Gore flew to Cincinnati to promise federal support and dip a foot in the river, his duty conveniently discharged in downtown Cincinnati. Photo op completed, he flew back to Washington.

People are wearing ribbons, of course, in honor of flood victims. Is there a color left that hasn't been designated to another disaster or disease? Blue. OK.

It's always hardest to get people to join the cleanup crew. It sure isn't as much fun as the publicity committee or food or entertainment. Institutional help is beginning to roll. FEMA, IRS, SBA, private insurance. But our neighbors will need more than institutions can supply.

They need personal assistance from human beings. They are shocked and hurt and scared. Some of them have lost everything.

Mud is not nearly as exciting as water. The guardsmen and CNN and NBC will be headed off to the next disaster.

And it will be just us again. Greater Cincinnati. Northern Kentucky. Indiana. Cleves and Mount Lookout and Hamilton and Indian Hill and Bethel and Fort Thomas and Hooven and Batavia. Our neighbors in Falmouth and New Richmond and Madison, Ind., will need us more than ever.

Will we still be there?

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM) and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.