Nechama Lends Hand to Flood Victims in Louisville

[Archived from August 28, 2009]

[by Shiela Steinman Wallace]

When Louisville was hit with flash floods on August 4, it was the third natural disaster in less than a year. More than 6.5 inches of rain falling in less than an hour left many areas of the city dealing with major damage.

The Public Library, the University of Louisville, Churchill Downs and St. Mary’s & Elizabeth Hospital each suffered damage that reached into the millions of dollars. Many individuals’ homes were damaged, and cars were lost.

The flooding was so extensive that the cleanup effort is still underway today, nearly a month later, and there is much more to do.

Help came from many sources, including the Jewish group, Nechama. With two trucks loaded with supplies, two volunteers and two staff members, Nechama – the Jewish Response to Disaster, set out from Minnesota to lend a hand in Louisville.

“Flood problems are a different magnitude than other natural disasters,” Nechama founder Seth Gardner said. “People can’t return to their homes, or, even worse, they are living with the contamination.”

Nechama specializes in working with unaffiliated volunteers. They come down with equipment and team leaders and rely on local community volunteers to fill out their work groups. Gardner reported that August 15 was the group’s best day with 22 volunteers, but he is disappointed that more people haven’t come forward.

Lee Hyman has been the local contact for the group, and Debby Rose has helped with local publicity.

Nechama has its roots in 1993, when a group of friends traveled to Des Moines, IA, to help when that city was flooded. “We had a great experience,” Gardner said. “We helped a guy clean out a factory.”

The friends also saw a number of faith-based groups in action. Driven by their own Jewish values, in 1996, they decided to found Nechama to be a Jewish disaster response team.

They built their own trailer, and when disaster struck Grand Forks, ND, they set out to make a difference. At first, they restricted their activities to their home area, Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconson and the Dakotas. But Nechama has grown over time. They’ve recruited more people and built more trailers, so when Hurricane Katrina hit, they were ready, and since then they have traveled further from home, responding wherever there is a large disaster.

Gardner explained that it was really a personal connection that brought Nechama to Louisville this time. As president of the Minnesota chapter of VOAD (Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster), he attended the annual convention in Salt Lake City, where he met Jim Garrett, president of the Kentucky chapter.

When Louisville flooded, Gardner contacted Garrett. “I came to take a look,” he said, “and decided there was plenty of damage and we could make an impact, so we rolled with equipment from Minnesota.”

“We’ve been working in between 15th and 25th, south of Broadway and north of Algonquin,” he said. “We’ve been going into homes and pulling out flooded personal possessions, most of which cannot be saved if they been flooded.”

They’ve also been pulling up carpet and flooring, stripping buildings “down to the subfloor and removing plaster and drywall to about two feet above the water line. Then we wash and sanitize the area to help prevent mold growth.”

While Nechama’s efforts here were well publicized, Gardner said there weren’t many people who stepped up to volunteer, and he found that disappointing. The group was planning to stay in Louisville until August 27.

While they were here, they worked in cooperation with Metro United Way.

There is still work to be done. If you are 18 years or older and have a current tetanus shot, Metro United Way is still looking for volunteers. Call 292-6017 or register online at

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