High-water mark, deep anguish remain long after flood recedes in Ohio town

December 24, 1990|By Thom Loverro | Thom Loverro,Sun Staff Correspondent

SHADYSIDE, OHIO — SHADYSIDE,Ohio -- Janet Polivka gives out photos of her daughter Kerri, inside a magnetized plastic sleeve for people to keep, dressed in her favorite dancing outfit.

"She's an angel, and she'll watch over you," Mr. Polivka tells people.

Kerri Jo Polivka, 12, lost her life in June when a wall of water came crashing down Wegee Creek through this Ohio Valley community. The loss took the life out of Janet and Frank Polivka, who have struggled since June 14 with the tragedy of the flash floods that killed 26 people in the area.

Six months after that disaster, Shadyside is slowly recovering from the devastation that raged along the two creeks, Pipe and Wegee, on the outskirts of this town on the banks of the Ohio River.

The disaster left its share of scars, both physically and emotionally, on this town of about 4,300.

Along the creeks are piles of debris. Remnants of life before the flood -- bicycles, clothes, toys, -- remain among the woods where they were swept, while the rebuilding of homes takes place nearby.

Red ribbons mark the spot to which the water rose -- 25 feet high. The waterways are ankle-deep, as they are normally, leaving it hard to imagine the 100-foot wide wall of water that destroyed 59 homes and damaged 30 others.

The victims have tried to put the disaster behind them and move on, as their new homes near completion, and their psyches heal through counseling.

But then there is Mrs. Polivka, a reminder to all of the pain of Shadyside. She gives out the photos of Kerri. She has taken out full-page advertisements in the local weekly newspaper commemorating her daughter.

"I don't want to lock my daughter's memory away in a closet," she said. "One day I had a bad crying fit, and my husband asked me what set me off so bad. I said, 'No one mentioned Kerri's name that day.' "

Mrs. Polivka's home was washed away in the flood. Her new home was built with the help of the Shadyside Disaster Relief Center, and she hopes to be in it by Christmas.

Many who decided to stay and rebuild either are in their new homes or close to it, thanks to the fair weather that has extended the construction season. They have received financial assistance from the American Red Cross, federal government loans or grants, and private donations, and help from various church groups sending in volunteers.

Some have moved away, and others have decided to wait until next year to rebuild.

Mrs. Polivka sings the praises of the Shadyside Disaster Relief Center, an ad-hoc group formed hours after the flood, when donations started coming in.

"We had nothing, no home, no car, nothing," she said. "We didn't know what to do. These people here were the first to reach out their hands to my husband and I. They do all this for no pay of any kind, but God will bless them all."

Where credit for rebuilding goes, though, has been a sore spot in this community.

The Shadyside Disaster Relief Center has largely been operated through the efforts of Gregory C. Boyd, a disabled coal miner named by Mead Township officials to coordinate the help coming into the area in the first days after the flood. The office has handled the distribution of nearly $700,000 in monetary donations, tons of clothing and supplies, and more than 2,000 workers who have come to volunteer.

However, several months later, another group, the Mead Township Task Force for Rebuilding, was formed also to provide disaster assistance and rebuilding help. The second organization was created when the Belmont County prosecutor's office ruled that the township lacked the authority to appoint Mr. Boyd to oversee the disaster services.

Mr. Boyd, who serves as a volunteer and continues to operate the center, said the new organization has undermined relief efforts in the community. "They just didn't want to work with us," he said.

The Mead Township Task Force has gone through three coordinators, one of whom said he resigned because he received anonymous, threatening phone calls.

The current coordinator is Lynn Marling, a Shadyside council member and businessman. His group has aligned itself with the Mennonite organization -- a religious group that has sent in hundreds of volunteer laborers. The group refused to work with Mr. Boyd because of the lack of structure in his organization, Mennonite officials said.

"Mr. Boyd and his organization have done a fine job on all their projects," he said. "We have our own projects, which I feel have been superb. We have no animosity toward them or anyone else."

The task force has undertaken eight home-construction projects, said David Hurst, project director for Mennonite Disaster Services. Two are completed, and they hope to have three more done by Christmas, he said. They hope to have three more done by January, and then start two new projects, he said.

The disaster center has worked on 14 homes, Mr. Boyd said. Five families are in, and the rest he hopes to have done by Christmas.

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