Having no military training, I never thought I’d be holding a flat brown cardboard box of Meals Ready to Eat. But here it is: “Chicken Pulled with Buffalo Style Sauce.” Packed in South Carolina, it weighs 8 oz and the grey-green plastic packet is filled with something that looks a lot like what I’d get if I put celery through a blender with about a cup of water—thinner than baby food consistency. I can't vouch for how it tastes because there's no way I'd actually open it. I read the standard instructions, thinking they don’t apply since this one is just goo, but at the bottom of the slim cardboard it says: “Eat some of each component to get a balance of nutrients. Eat the high carbohydrate items first. Save the dry snack items to eat when you’re on the move.”
That’s what many people who were stranded in several of the villages around us after Irene slammed into central Vermont, ate...MRE’s and water flown in by helicopter. When a network of us from the Episcopal churches around Vermont started finding out who to contact (once the phones were operable) we learned: “Yes! They could use lunches for their volunteers. Could they please get some Gatorade, too, "because everyone’s a little sick of just water.” (There were so many stacks of bottled water around that one woman said, “We could create another flood with it.”)
But that’s good because you can’t drink the water in Bethel, our nearest village. Even boiling it creates white film on top. Still, some people haven’t gotten that word and we’re now hearing of families who are getting sick. Organization and communication varies a great deal, town by town. Unfortunately, in places, people's “needs assessments” are secondary to “road repairs” and traffic control at the moment--or Fema registrations.
I have a friend in one town over the mountain who prints out daily e-mails from the town and posts them on his barn. People on his isolated road, walk by and read. Trying to keep our good humor alive, he also told me of one of his neighbors, a 90 year old woman who needed medical attention. Stuffed into a side-car of an ATV, hauled to the village green and into a helicopter, she was heard to say, “This is the most fun I’ve had in my entire life!”
But it’s far from fun for most of the people I talk to. Volunteers who are so tired, they are ready to drop. Volunteers frustrated and angry over inadequate town planning. Crystal from Bethel, for instance, who single-handedly has stacked up in the town hall, donated clothes by size over what must be about a hundred tables. She neatly stacks bedding on the stage floor. "We have a lot of donations here, but we need new socks and new underswear." She has a few new boots but they only go up to size seven.
Volunteers also need gas cards, because they’re driving around so much and it’s becoming very expensive. There are no laundry facilities for flood victims—a load of laundry at the local Laundromat costs $4.25 and they have no money. But even if we arranged to provide money for it, laundromats around are now saying—“No Flood Clothes.” It gums up their machines. So people are told, you really have to throw your old clothes away.
But it's the food that has kept up hopping this week. Communitiy dinners. Food shelves. On Labor Day, we moblized our forces and sent hundreds of sack lunches, delivered by a few brave drivers, up over the mountain. They wended their way past heavy road equpment--some from Maine, Kansas, and South Carolina. Sack lunches became our road tolls. "OK we'll let you through, even though the road is closed, if you care to give our workers lunches. They work all day without stopping."
Yesterday we handed out lunches with fresh fruit to some National Guard guys working on a bridge. (Vermont is a land of streams, and about 90 bridges have been destroyed.) The bridge workers didn't have to rely on their MRE's and were very grateful.
We've been filtering requests such as "We really need soy-based baby formula for two of our families." Or "We could use salt and pepper, matches, cooking oil, vinegar." "A man needs size 12 boots--he has no shoes.) I realize the first wave of supplies that hit a disaster village are bleach, rubber gloves, heavy duty contracter bags for debris, masks. Then it's all the "other stuff." Look around your house, especially your kitchen and imagine it all gone.
I call my source in White River Junction at St. Paul's Episcopal Church and she says, "Done!" She and her team of angels get it to us and it's in our next "Over the Mountain Relay." And they' are doing this for many other flood-stricken towns as well.
Yesterday on a run for some school supplies, and a few new socks and underwear for Crystal, I stopped by the school to speak with the secretary there. Unlike some other trapped villages, they can offer their kids lunch, but when I mentioned that my White River Angel had 100 pounds of cole slaw she was looking to give somebody, she said, "Oh yes! I know our school cook could use that."
Who ever would have guessed that in Vermont, land of organic vegetables (many fields now silted over and ruined for years by polluted river) and largesse, we would be reduced to MRE’s and Gatorade or water or gifted PB and J sandwiches? Or for one of our neighbors to have a toothbrush, but no toothpaste. Or to simply ask for a hairbrush.
It’s a world I never thought I’d be a part of. But here we are. All of us. We're learning up close and personal what's truly important.
I rely, now, on words such as as Andrew Harvey has written in his book The Hope: A Guide to Sacred Activism “We are supported by networks of grace…this limitless wine of grace is pouring down incessantly, in and through every event, through pain as well as joy…through ordeal as well as happiness, terror as well as calm.”
Amen to that.