Truckload of gifts cheers flood victims

December 23, 1993|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,Staff Writer

Suzanne Mead doesn't cry easily. But the other day after she picked up pictures of her trip to Alexandria, Mo., she sat in the parking lot and cried her eyes out.

"It's not pity -- the warmth of the people and their acceptance of us was extraordinary. And that's what did it," said Mrs. Mead, who with Dorothy Gosnell and Mayor Jerry Johnson traveled to )) Alexandria last weekend to distribute the Christmas gifts that Mount Airy had collected for its adopted town.

Since August, Mount Airy individuals and businesses have raised $40,000 for Alexandria, a town at the confluence of the Des Moines and Mississippi rivers that was nearly destroyed by the summer floods in the Midwest.

Mrs. Mead, Mrs. Gosnell and Mayor Johnson say their their three-day trip to Alexandria has left them emotionally and physically exhausted.

The images of devastation are still fresh in their minds: Mud piled like snow along the roads and piles of debris from gutted houses.

But the three visitors from Mount Airy also remember the town's brightly lighted Christmas tree, an emblem of Alexandria's optimism amid the wreckage. A sign next to the tree announced "Alexandria's Tree of Hope."

Mrs. Mead said she's still trying to deal with the shock of returning to the frenzy of the holiday season at home after seeing people who had lost everything.

"Christmas is over for me. It seems so phony; I don't have any interest in it," Mrs. Mead said. "My first thought when I walked in the door was 'what excess!' "

The Mount Airy delegation arrived in Alexandria Friday evening and was greeted by Bob Davis, the town's mayor. The Marylanders were surprised to learn that the town had taken up a collection so they could stay at the Days Inn in neighboring Keokuk, Iowa.

Members of the group had planned to sleep on somebody's floor; they had even taken along their sleeping bags.

That first night, Mayor Davis also took his guests on a tour of Alexandria.

About one-third of the residences in the town were destroyed by the flooding.

"The mayor [of Alexandria] told us some buildings were washed away and they don't even know where they are," Mrs. Gosnell said.

No one is living in Alexandria right now. Some of the town's 470 residents are staying with relatives and some are living in mobile homes provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Last Saturday, Alexandria residents assembled at the only usable building in town, the community center, for the Christmas party. Mrs. Gosnell and Mrs. Mead spent the entire afternoon unloading the tractor-trailer that had traveled from Mount Airy to Alexandria filled with Christmas gifts.

Mount Airy residents, businesses and churches had adopted the town's 210 families for Christmas.

At the holiday party, the guests from Mount Airy said they felt an immediate bond with the residents of their adopted town.

"It wasn't like a bunch of strangers politely shaking our hands and saying hello," Mrs. Mead said. "There were hugs and real warmth."

The town of Alexandria presented Mayor Johnson with a key to the city and a clock. Mrs. Mead and Mrs. Gosnell were given decorative collector dolls.

Mayor Johnson said he plans to assemble a group of volunteers to travel to Alexandria in the spring to help the residents rebuild. He said the town needs money, more than anything else, with which to buy building materials.

In the meantime, he and his fellow Marylanders will savor the memories of Christmas in Alexandria.

"I felt I was on a mission for the Lord in the name of Mount Airy," Mrs. Gosnell said. "It's a Christmas that I'll never forget."

Mayor Johnson said he was particularly touched by a man who told him that the town needed this visit to make it through the winter.

"At least it gave then one day to smile and sort of enjoy," he said.

After the Christmas party, Mrs. Mead said, one Alexandria resident, Virginia Elvis, invited her to go and see her damaged home.

Mrs. Elvis, 61, doesn't have flood insurance and, like other

elderly people in the town, she's not sure if she'll be able to rebuild and return to Alexandria.

A family picture was lying on the living room floor, and Mrs. Mead asked Mrs. Elvis why she hadn't taken it with her.

Mrs. Mead said the woman told her she didn't want anything that would remind her of the flood.

"That seemed to be the attitude," Mrs. Mead said. "Whatever was left in their houses they didn't want, because they're contaminated with mud and water."

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