Johnstown Saints Help Each Other in Flood

“Johnstown Saints Help Each Other in Flood,” Ensign, Sept. 1977, 92–93

Johnstown Saints Help Each Other in Flood

It started raining Tuesday night, a violent thunderstorm that in a matter of hours dumped nine inches of rain on the city of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Flashfloods poured down the canyons surrounding the city, and by the morning of Wednesday, July 20, the low ground areas of Johnstown were filled with torrents of water. By the time the waters receded, more than sixty people were dead.

Brother and Sister Place lived in a mobile home park in the area—all the mobile homes were washed downstream.

Brother Ed Rezepka is blind; he and his wife and daughter were only evacuated by Civil Defense workers after their basement had filled and water deeply sloshed through the first floor of their house—five feet above ground level.

Sister Beverly Naylor had to wait until Wednesday afternoon to be rescued by boat. The water was four feet deep on the first floor of her house.

And yet, though many of the Saints in Johnstown were in danger areas, no Latter-day Saint lost his life.

Many people who lived on high ground in the Johnstown area were not even aware that a flood was going on. Johnstown Branch President Neil Woffinden lived in a new home—so new that there was no telephone service. He found out about the flooding when a member coming home from working graveyard shift parked his car in front of their house at seven o’clock in the morning.

“I can’t get through with my car,” he said, and then proceeded to walk down the hill into the stricken area where his family lived.

Without a telephone, President Woffinden immediately drove to the home of the branch mission leader, to use his telephone. Quorum presidents were contacted, where possible. Home teachers were sent out immediately to locate people who lived or worked in flooded areas.

Active members were easy to locate. Inactive members were much harder to contact, because once they were evacuated few of the branch members knew enough about them to know where to contact them. So the lists of evacuees—and the tragically growing list of the dead—were searched for names of Church members. All were relieved to find no Latter-day Saints on the list.

But the work was just beginning. Damage from the flood had been terrible. In some parts of town, houses were shifted many yards off their foundations. On one road, currents estimated to be up to seventy miles an hour had swept away cars—and people who panicked and left their homes in the face of irresistible currents. In many places asphalt was torn from the road, drifting downstream in huge chunks that battered or buried cars. And thick mud was deposited everywhere in the beautiful downtown section of Johnstown.

Rebuilding takes time. Days after the flood National Guard troops directed traffic to avoid the bulldozers and other heavy equipment moving mud, ruined furniture, flood debris, and hopelessly wrecked vehicles.

Elders quorum president Ken Pearson found his office flooded, and thousands of dollars worth of dental equipment ruined—or needing expensive cleaning and repairs. Worse still, irreplaceable business records were damaged. His wife and some other Saints worked for hours to hang the papers on makeshift clotheslines to dry out. But there was still something to be grateful for. No one had been hurt—and the floodwaters had missed the Xerox machine by a quarter of an inch!

Helping was the order of the day. Following the counsel of the prophets, members who suffered loss turned first to their families, caring for each other and staying with relatives while their damaged homes could be cleaned.

Then there were those without nearby family. Ed and Regina Rezepka had nowhere to stay; so President Woffinden arranged for Ralph and Carol Lybarger, who were eager to help, to take them in.

The Lybargers themselves, however, were without running water. And so Sister Mary Blades, who had running water, took all their laundry—and that of several other families—and washed it for them. She also boiled drinking water for those who live in waterless areas.

In fact, the Sunday after the flood, Church meetings became an opportunity to bring bottled water and give it to those in need. Food also changed hands; and Saints in the neighboring communities of Altoona and Harrisburg immediately began gathering food and clothing to help restock the supplies of those who had lost so much in the flood.

When Rexburg, Idaho, was crushed under the waters of the Teton Dam, the Saints were in the majority, which meant that the Church organization could quickly take over and solve problems. The ward was also the neighborhood. But in Johnstown, the two hundred Saints were spread throughout the whole city. Contact was much more difficult, and the National Guard exercised the authority in the cleanup effort. The Saints complied fully with all regulations as they worked to take care of their own.

The district presidency and many other Saints quickly made plans for volunteers to come to Johnstown to help repair Saints’ damaged homes. Even the missionaries took time from proselytizing in order to help Ron and Lucy Orchard get their downtown restaurant back into working order. And in a typical let’s-all-help-each-other attitude, the Orchards provided a home for two of the city’s four missionaries during the hectic week after the flood.

And some “coincidences” helped a great deal, too. Brother and Sister Markham moved out of their old house and into a new one just a week before the flood. One pair of missionaries was scheduled to move into the old house by the first of August. But when the flood struck, causing severe damage to the house, no Saints were living there!

The people of Johnstown were hit hard—from time to time it seems that nature reminds humanity how weak we really are. And yet all the people, Saints included, are pulling together to rebuild and restore. Within a week of the flood people were singing cheerfully as they scoured muck off the walls of houses and businesses; jokes and laughter were the order of the day around the Salvation Army trailers that dispensed food and beverages; and once the first sad rush of looting was past, a cooperative spirit grew among the people—both those stricken by the flood and those who lived on higher ground.

In fact, when a call was issued in Alleghany County (which includes Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) for clothes to be donated for flood victims, the response was so great that within a few days radio announcers had to plead with the people to stop bringing in the clothing—they already had more than enough!

That is the key to the whole welfare plan: if everyone does what he is supposed to, there will always be enough. And the Saints in Pennsylvania acted so quickly and coped so well that they were able to tell the Church Welfare Department in Salt Lake City: No thanks. We’re taking care of each other just fine!