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I spent part of today being interviewed for a volunteer position at a local homeless shelter. The news spread yesterday that the nearest full-service shelter was suddenly short-staffed due to the flood.

This is partly due to an influx of newly homeless people, partly due to the fact that it's one of the few places in the flood ravaged area that could be used as a staging area for clothing and other donations for the Red Cross, and partly due to some usual helpers being unable to reach the shelter because they're stuck on the other side of washouts.

The flooding has turned our world upside down.

Besides the loss of homes, and the loss of businesses, the loss of infrastructure has dramatically intensified the issues in the area.

There are things you'd never imagine: propane tanks ripped away and floating down the rivers, getting snagged and congregating at curves or bridges, leaking all the while, filling the area with the stench of all-too-flammable gas. Fire stations and state offices that had to be evacuated. Entire chunks of road infrastructure gone. Phone poles missing, not just knocked down, but carried on the waters to some distant junk pile, like twigs - both regular and high-tension long-distance transmission lines gone. Heavy construction equipment buried in mud.

So many of the things that aid in recovery were lost.

And so were jobs. Lots of them.

At the shelter, I was told they're preparing for two different emergencies.

There's the immediate-term emergency that's full of wide-spread damage accompanied by wide-eyed volunteers with sleeves rolled up and ready to do whatever they can. This phase is a heart-lifting period in which bags of donations arrive by the car-load. Community dinners appear on the wings of magical food fairies. The papers and TV screens are full of people with shovels and buckets, mops and bleach, there are helicopters and heavy machinery, and the world is abuzz with good hearts and hard work. It's the phase that lasts a month or so, until things start to look normal again. And then it wanes. When appearances are back to normal, and the major inconveniences (like crumpled bridges and roadbeds scoured clean of anything resembling a road) are repaired, ordinary life beckons.

And then there's the long-term emergency.

This is the time when the surface looks all shiny, but not very far below the same dark underbelly of destruction lurks. It's a quieter kind of destruction - it tiptoes in the back door taking the form of joblessness, hunger, and long-term homelessness.

Maybe there was too little insurance on the house, or the insurance agency is playing games ("oh, you had hurricane insurance, but this was a tropical storm, not a hurricane").

Or maybe you rented, but your apartment building has been condemned due to structural damage - and you can't afford to put up  first, last, and security to gain new living quarters. Or maybe you can scrape together the rent, but your credit was wrecked due to a short stint of unemployment two years ago, and now you can't rent anyplace because all the landlords do credit checks before they'll rent to anyone.

Or maybe the store where you used to work had muddy goo up to the ceiling, and the building has been condemned, so it will be months - if ever - before your job reappears. Maybe it was your family's only source of income, or maybe you have more than one source, but both were critical to making ends meet.

There are going to be many families visited by this sneaky form of destruction. It invites itself in, plops down on the sofa, puts its feet up on the coffee table, and demands your full attention until whenever-the-hell it feels like leaving. These families are going to need help for the long haul, and that means the homeless shelters and food banks are going to need volunteers for the long haul.

Give your local shelter or foodbank a call. Try to find one day each week, or once a month, when you can swing by and lend a hand. You're needed today, and you're going to be needed for a lot of tomorrows - even after the surface shine is restored.

And while you're out there, looking for ways to help - or if you need help yourself - be sure to check out - a clearing house for needs and offers of help.

Originally posted to These Green Mountains on Thu Sep 01, 2011 at 08:24 PM PDT.

Also republished by J Town, Progressive Hippie, and Community Spotlight.

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