By Jim Gallagher June 9, 2019
Two dozen hungry residents and soldiers from the Illinois National Guard were waiting when the Red Cross Emergency Response Vehicle pulled up in the soggy, semi-isolated and partly flooded town of Hardin, Illinois.
Aboard were 400 sandwiches, boxes of candy bars, chips, apple pie and bottled water. They were free to all comers.
Down the street, concrete barriers, sandbags and a noisy pump were holding back the Illinois River, which had swamped part of the town and threatened to flood more.
Among those waiting this Friday evening was Alicia Smith of Hardin. She and her husband lost a battle at 3 a.m. recently when the river conquered the sandbags they had piled around their home. It was their first anniversary.
“Now we have three feet of water,” she said. “We had to go to a camper because we have no place to live.”
The town’s only grocery store was closed by the flood. “The Red Cross has really helped us today. You just can’t go out and get food.” She left with bags of sandwiches and snacks for her extended family.
Rural Calhoun County is a narrow finger of land surrounded on three sides by the Illinois and Mississippi rivers. Both are flooding. The water stopped the ferries and blocked bridges and bigger roads that link the county to the rest of the state.
That’s left the villages in southern Calhoun in semi-isolation.
A trip from St. Louis usually takes an hour and a half, including a ferry ride. The Red Cross truck took five hours to reach the town on a winding maze of narrow back roads – at one point fording a creek.
The water and the isolation are a double problem for Stacy Swan and her son. The flood cost her one paycheck when it swamped the store where she works. Her second job is in Pittsfield, which is now an hour and a half away on the back-road maze. That employer cut back her hours because customers could no longer get in.
The bag of Red Cross food in her arms is money she won’t have to spend. “I don’t need any more going out of my pocket,” she said.
At the Emergency Response Vehicle, volunteer John Tessmer handed out snacks, tossing candy bars to children, as volunteer Tom Fauskee opened the serving window to fill bags with sandwiches.
The National Guard loaded 100 sandwiches for delivery to little Hamburg, a partly flooded village a few miles away.
“This will help me a ton,” said Elizabeth Brown, 24, walking away from the Red Cross truck with a bag of food. “Without it, I’d be making trips to friends’ houses to cook, and I work midnights.” She moved out of her house when her basement flooded.
An Emergency Response Vehicle - which staffers call “the ERV” - is basically a mobile feeding station and equipment hauler. It brings food to people in the midst of disaster and delivers more food and cleaning kits when the recovery begins.
As word spread, more residents showed up at the Red Cross truck. The food was gone in about an hour, and people had to be turned away.
Tessmer and Fauskee, both from Minnesota, did their first run of the day at 10 a.m. taking food to a Red Cross shelter in Valmeyer, Illinois, south of St. Louis. They reached Hardin after 6 p.m., and they wouldn’t return to St. Louis until midnight.
Both are on their first “deployment” – trips to disaster zones on behalf of the Red Cross.
Tessmer is semi-retired from a career as a “cardiovascular perfusionist.” He runs a heart-lung machine during heart surgery, specializing in children.
“I stop the heart,” he says, “and it’s literally true. The heart is stopped and restarted during some types of surgery.”
He found the Red Cross last fall after retiring and hearing his wife say, “You can’t sit around here doing nothing.”
The Red Cross’ Missouri and Arkansas region has seen competing disasters, with river flooding, followed by tornadoes in central Missouri, then more flooding. Tessmer started his deployment on tornado work. “It was a shelter, and the people were very indigent, and all the people were on medical assistance,” he said. “We were more health care workers, with all the wheelchairs.”
Fauskee is a retired chauffeur, and member of the Southside Singers, who serenade people in nursing and retirement homes around Minnesota. In retirement, he walked the Camino de Santiago in Spain, or the Way of St. James, a spiritual journey of about 500 miles across northern Spain.
His goal in the Red Cross is simple: “I just want to help people.”
The Red Cross stands ready to set up a shelter in Calhoun County, if requested. County emergency manager Gene Breden said it isn’t needed. Those flooded out have found places with friends or family, he said, or they opted to stay in flooded houses.