BY TOM O'NEILL
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Even as the Flood of '97 claimed lives and entire communities, it left behind one precious commodity: each other.
The volunteer relief effort grows each day, playing out in small churches and large high school gymnasiums. Grandparents. Corporate workers. School bus drivers. Neighbors. And in many cases, their children.
An estimated 700 to 1,000 Tristate residents have given their time at shelters and donation dropoff sites. And countless thousands more have offered their money, clothes, cleaning supplies - and prayers. The flood at its worst has brought out our best, summarized volunteer Jo Ann Moore, a Finneytown grandmother of four.
The American Red Cross alone served 2,000 hot meals at 16 shelters Wednesday and reported that at least 4,800 dwellings have been affected by the flood.
These are the cold statistics. But at every turn, personal stories emerge.
As an expressionless boy, maybe 5 or 6, drew a boat on a Magna-Doodle sketch toy at the Columbia Parkway YMCA relief shelter, Red Cross volunteer Ed Gault of Blue Ash leaned against a table piled high with blankets and relief supplies. He got six hours sleep the previous night, on a hard mat. Stacked boxes of relief supplies lined the walls as families sat and waited, some worrying aloud, others staring in silence.
Mr. Gault, 32, took three vacation days from his paramedic job in Sycamore Township. The Red Cross and other relief organizations say people with needed skills - be they medical, clerical or labor-oriented - are especially valued. But every pair of willing hands is appreciated.
''I'll be here as long as it takes,'' Mr. Gault said, his voice tired. That was three days ago. He's still there, providing basic medical care and a listening ear to those worried they'll return to a home destroyed.
Mr. Gault's level of dedication isn't unique. In fact, Enquirer tours of area shelters reveal that it's fairly typical.
''My dad used to say, 'If everybody gave a little bit, no one would have to give a lot,''' said Carol Theler of Mount Washington, a shelter manager who helped set up the relief center at the Cold Spring Fire Department.
About 18 years ago, Ms. Theler became involved with the Red Cross, helping a couple she met in church open a shelter in Newtown after flood waters ravaged that area, as they have again this week.
The Red Cross, Salvation Army and St. Vincent de Paul Society are the most recognizable relief agencies, but they aren't alone. Schools, churches and businesses have stepped up.
As night began to fall in New Richmond, Bethel-Tate school bus driver Lynette Lindsey was busy sorting donated clothes in the basement at St. Peter Church, which offered itself as a relief shelter. Her workday began at 10 a.m.
''My daughter and I started setting up the tables, and there were already clothes in garbage bags here,'' the mother of five said.
''We started setting them out (on the tables), and people just started bringing more things in. It's unreal. It's come all day.''
Outside, a truck from the St. Vincent de Paul Society sat packed with donations yet to be sorted. Ms. Lindsey recalled how, when she was 7, her family moved to the second floor of their New Richmond home as flood waters slowly rose.
''When you become an adult,'' she said, ''you experience the reality, the devastation.''
While many churches served as shelters, others established donation dropoff sites.
''A woman who had come from a prayer meeting just backed up her car,'' Kenwood Baptist Church business manager John Kirby said Wednesday. ''Canned goods. Similac (baby formula). Warm sweaters. Even though waters haven't gotten up here, it touches us too.''
Mr. Kirby said two sister Baptist churches in the East End have helped evacuate residents there, and have made donations of cleaning supplies a high priority.
Among those who need relief are those who provide it. That's where bus driver Terri Stroop of Monroe Township comes in. She spent Tuesday baking cookies at New Richmond Elementary School for rescue workers.
Earlier this week, Paige Craynon, 9, and April Pitman, 10, both of Bridgetown, went door-to-door seeking baby clothes, canned goods and any other items their neighbors could spare.
On Wednesday, they went to their principal at Oakdale Elementary School, Sandra Bauman, to ask whether their effort could be expanded schoolwide.
Today and Friday, the school will collect paper and cleaning products and canned goods to help a Falmouth man and his family whose possessions were swept away.
''I know their home got wrecked, and they need all this stuff,'' April said. ''If that was me, and I lost all my things, I'd like people to do that, too.''
Contributions have come from dozens of corporate citizens of Cincinnati as well.
Procter & Gamble Co. has contributed $200,000 to the Red Cross and is approaching the $200,000 mark in donated products - from Bounty to Pampers to Mr. Clean - to help victims recover. Collection bins are being set up around company offices for employee donations.
Ameritech Cellular has joined with Cincinnati Bell to distribute 20 cellular phones to Falmouth police, fire and rescue workers, as well as 30 cellular phones to Covington workers and 20 cellular phones to rescuers in Ohio's Clermont County. The company also is establishing a Falmouth-based command center so residents can contact family members.
Several grocery chains and banks, including Kroger, Thriftway, Provident Bank and Fifth Third, have set up dropoff sites or made direct financial contributions. Or both.
Small businesses have combined efforts. For instance, J.C. Bradford & Co., an investment firm, has joined with Boone Moving & Storage in West Chester, which helped Bradford move to its downtown location in 1994. Bradford is collecting donations; Boone has offered the trucks and people to distribute them to relief sites.
Some people had planned to help since they received word that volunteers were needed. Then there's Chris Bohmann.
A shift leader at the Eastgate United Dairy Farmers store, Mr. Bohmann was driving through California taking pictures of the flood when he passed the Ebersole Community Center on Kellogg Avenue, seeing a sign designating the building a Red Cross emergency shelter.
''I put the camera in the back seat of my car,'' he said, ''and went into the shelter. I figured it was better to ask if they needed any help than for me to walk around getting pictures of the water that's causing so much misery.''
Non-pictures worth a thousand words.
Gina Gentry-Fletcher, Sheila McLaughlin, Bernie Mixon, Cliff Radel, Janet Wetzel and Christine Wolff contributed to this report.