They called it the miracle of Dry Creek.
On August 5, 2012, a once-every-few-centuries flood ravished Washington County Tennessee in Central Appalachia, one of poorest areas in America.
“There was nowhere for the water to go,” recalled Walter Crouch, the CEO of the Appalachia Service Project, a 46 year old organization dedicated to repairing and rebuilding homes.
So much water flowed down mountainsides the normally 10 to 20 feet wide Dry Creek expanded to 600 yards wide, washing homes onto the road and destroying a 63-year old United Methodist Camp that was a fixture in the community. All told, 139 homes were damaged and 45 were uninhabitable.
Only two homeowners had flood insurance. Yet, because the event was so localized the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) did not declare it an emergency. That’s when the community stepped up, and stepped in.
By October 23 – just ten weeks after the flood – the all-volunteer team led by ASP broke ground. By November 22, the first home was done. By Christmas, six homes were finished.
By comparison, when tornados hit the southern part of the county FEMA rebuilt 5 homes during the same amount of time it took ASP to build 25 – all with volunteers.
Crouch said being denied a FEMA declaration may have been a blessing in disguise for the recovery effort.
“You don’t have to go overseas to see third world conditions. This isn’t reality TV. This is wake-up call TV.”
“It happened much more quickly. And it brought the community together,” he said.
Senator Lamar Alexander told the Johnson City Press, “It’s a terrific story of Tennessee volunteers and Tennesseans helping themselves with not much government help. I’ve never seen a better example of people helping people …”
Scenes of communities coming together after natural disasters, and events like September 11 and the Oklahoma City bombing, reflect the innate strength of American communities. As was the case of Central Appalachia, these miracles don’t happen by accident.
A Model Built on Grace
Started in 1969, ASP is dedicated to what Crouch calls a two-pronged mission.
“One is to confront substandard housing in poverty stricken areas of Central Appalachia. And two is to give transformational service experiences to volunteers. Both are equally important to us. While we’re helping low income families, the people who probably get helped the most are our volunteers who realize that life is about giving and not getting all the time, and that we’re called to serve rather than be served,” Crouch said.
ASP last year marshaled 17,000 volunteers from 32 states to work on 700 homes through a five-state region that includes Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.
Crouch says ASP does major and minor repairs including re-roofs, foundation, and drainage work. He said the families they serve often don’t have the financial resources to do routine maintenance, which compounds the cost and scope of repair jobs.
“There are no businesses, there are no governments, there are no non-profit organizations, there are no churches. There are only people.”
Leveraging relatively small amounts of public funding to secure private funding is a key part of ASP’s model. Crouch says when ASP applies for public money through grants they aim for a mix of 20 percent public funding and 80 percent private funding, which is the opposite approach of many applicants. Ultimately, however, only one to two percent of their funding comes from public funding while the rest is private.
After the 2012 flood, for instance, ASP used $200,000 in public money to help raise $2 million in private donations, and helped homeowners come out way head in terms of equity.
“After the flood we were putting about $30,000 hard costs into a home. When we were done they had a brand new 3 bedroom one bath home that was worth about $80,000,” Crouch said.
“In the first 43 weeks we did 22 homes so almost a home every two weeks,” Crouch recalled. “Most of these homeowners were living in old mobile homes before they got a conventionally-built 3 bedroom one bath. One said, when we asked her what color of siding and what color of roof do you want, ‘I get to choose? I already feel like a millionaire and I get to choose?’”
Public agencies took note of ASP’s approach. The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA) adopted ASP’s model of how to manage and fund disaster-recovery efforts that don’t qualify for FEMA assistance level as a best practice.
Another key to their success, Crouch explained, is their reliance on local contractors who have the skills and experience to manage teams of volunteers with a wide-range of skill sets and experience.
Crouch also said while ASP is a faith-based organization they work hard to bring diverse denominations together with secular organizations.
“One of my favorite pictures is a home where RE/MAX realtors, Iowa State University volunteers and members of a Baptist church were all working on the same home. You had business, you had a public university and you had a church,” Crouch said.
“We see it as a grace gift. Grace deserved is no grace at all.”
“My message for that was simply this: There are no businesses, there are no governments, there are no non-profit organizations, there are no churches. There are only people,” Crouch said. “Those other things are only labels we organize ourselves around. If we just get down to the basics of people helping people we would be amazed at what we could accomplish.”
Crouch said another part of ASP’s model some people find controversial is their policy of never charging homeowners.
“Some people think we’re doing more bad than good. We know there are bad apples, but we serve the poorest of the poor. They couldn’t afford even the smallest housing payment. And many are elderly and handicapped folks,” Crouch said.
“Congressman Phil Roe (R-TN) put it well when he said, ‘One of those ten will be a bad apple. But don’t let that one stop you from doing good for the other nine.’ We don’t use the one as an excuse not to do things. We use the other nine as an excuse that we have to do something. Even Jesus healed ten lepers and only one came back to thank him,” Crouch said.
“We see it as a grace gift,” Crouch said. “Grace deserved is no grace at all.”
Crouch said his greatest need is more volunteers. This past year, ASP received 4,000 applications for assistance. They served 700 applicants but couldn’t help the other 3,300. Crouch said it would take 85,000 volunteers to serve current applicants.
In terms of ASP’s approach to government, Crouch is more of a pragmatist than a partisan or ideologue. Still, he worries about government’s overreach and policies that drive up the cost of living for the people ASP is trying to serve.
For instance, government has to be very careful about providing so-called affordable housing.
“It’s like higher education. The cheaper the student loan, the higher the price of education has gone up. It’s the same in affordable housing,” Crouch said. “Because of cheap money – low-interest or no interest loans – the people who don’t need extra debt or payments are the people who end up with extra debt and payments.”
Crouch, for instance, sees the effects of misguided or over-zealous conservation efforts first-hand.
“Pushing up energy costs is one of the worst things that can happen to a low income Central Appalachia family. It’s an inelastic cost. They have to put gas in the tank to go to work. Four dollars a gallon gas for you and me means, ‘Ok, we don’t go to Starbucks a couple of times a month.’ For these families it means they have to cut something out, and they don’t have anything to cut out. Usually what they cut out are their home repairs,” Crouch said.
“If we just get down to the basics of people helping people we would be amazed at what we could accomplish.”
Finally, he wants government to be careful about regulation and to not underestimate the drive and resilience of local communities and people on the ground. Volunteers, he emphasizes, are critical to their mission and they always need more.
“You don’t have to go overseas to see third world conditions. This isn’t reality TV. This is wake-up call TV,” Crouch said.
“Most of the people we serve are heroic. Their survival efforts are heroic. They’re committed to a place they call home.”
Thanks to ASP and its army of helping hands, many more of those homes are in place.
John Hart is Editor-in-Chief at Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter @johnhart333.