BY CHRISTINE WOLFF
The Cincinnati Enquirer
NEW RICHMOND - The Flood of '97 attracted a group of ambitious storm-chasers Thursday to this muddied, trash-strewn village.
They are the volunteer laborers of the Mennonite Disaster Service, a church organization founded in 1950 and dedicated to fixing the mess storms leave behind. They are carpenters, electricians, plumbers, painters, laborers - the first wave in what could be a six-month to a year stay by the disaster service.
They provide the labor and, they hope, the local community donates the supplies.
''The Bible tells us to help others out, to help where it's needed,'' said Dale Flora of Troy, Ohio.
He arrived at 8 a.m. Thursday with about 20 people from mid-Ohio. He's Old German Baptist, one of several religious denominations affiliated with the service, including Mennonites and Amish.
The group will create a home for those coming later. The empty rooms of an abandoned car dealership on Washington Street will become a dormitory for about 30 people, most staying five days. A shower room began going up Thursday; a kitchen and sleeping area comes next.
The 11,366-square-foot building - closed four years ago - is owned by Cincinnati auto dealer Jeff Wyler, who turned it over to the disaster service and offered to pay utility costs.
''This is a godsend. This is tremendous,'' said Dan Bontrager, of Middlebury, Ind., part of the set-up team. ''We looked all day Monday for a site. We were beginning to get discouraged. Then we got a call about this.''
Virginia Henson, 65, of Springfield, Ohio, the only woman with the group Thursday, spent the day disinfecting bathrooms and washing windows at the dormitory. She came because she ''wanted to help people, to show them the Lord loves them.''
The workers hit the backyard of Mayor Jack Gooding on Thursday afternoon when they temporarily ran out of building supplies at the dormitory. They didn't want to just sit around, said Mr. Bontrager.
In about three hours, they lugged to the curb mounds of logs, sticks and debris deposited in a low spot by the floodwaters.
''They just came along and started working,'' said Paul Blatz, the mayor's son. ''They're like angels - it's incredible. They certainly are doing the Lord's work.''