Indiana Mennonites help those who lost their homes to flooding in La Grange

Indiana Mennonites traveled to La Grange to help rebuild Dec. 27, 2017, more than four months after Hurricane Harvey caused massive flooding (Alyssa Goard/KXAN)
Indiana Mennonites traveled to La Grange to help rebuild Dec. 27, 2017, more than four months after Hurricane Harvey caused massive flooding (Alyssa Goard/KXAN)

LA GRANGE, Texas (KXAN) — A Mennonite group from LaGrange, Indiana, has traveled down to La Grange, Texas, to help rebuild homes after floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey displaced many of the town’s residents. More than four months after the storm hit, La Grange is still in the beginning stages of rebuilding and in need of help from volunteer groups to help families get back on their feet.

La Grange resident Virginia Olenick said her home flooded with seven feet of water during the storm. Hers is one of the many homes left unlivable. The city said, in total, 74 permanent homes and 174 mobile homes where seriously impacted by the flooding.

Olenick hasn’t been able to make much progress on rebuilding because of limited resources and health difficulties her husband faces.

“It’s hard, just not being in your home since August,” she said. She gets emotional just talking about her 105-year-old house. Her parents raised her there in the 1950s, and she moved back later on in life.

The team of Mennonites have gotten more accomplished on her home than she could have dreamed. Olenick now has hope that she will host the holidays for her grand kids someday soon.

“We’re gonna put it back together, it’s gonna be better than it ever was,” she said. “I got new windows — the guys are inside, they’re insulating everything — it’s gonna be awesome.”

The Mennonites are also installing central heating, which her house never had before. She’s enjoyed visiting with this team from Indiana and is impressed with their work ethic.

“They are awesome people, they are an awesome group,” Olenick said through tears.

Elmer Hochstetler is leading this Mennonite volunteer group, many of whom are young adults on their winter vacation.

“Hopefully when these people move into these houses, they feel more than just a new house without us giving a speech or nothing, hopefully we leave something behind,” Hochstetler said. Normally, his group wouldn’t travel this far, but they knew La Grange, Texas, could use the help.

Hochstetler said that others in LaGrange, Indiana began fundraising for La Grange, Texas, which led him to contact a church the Texas town to coordinate this trip. Over nearly two days, some of the group drove down in a bus, while others took the train. They all spent Christmas in Texas.

Most of this group didn’t want to be interviewed. Tsaid they were just happy to do the work.

“We don’t do it for a big thank you,” Hochstetler said. “We just come to help them because they need help.”

Part of this group will stay until Friday, while another part will stay until Saturday. Another team from Mennonite Disaster Services will arrive in La Grange later in January, which will bring in different groups for three months at a time.

Joey Melton with the La Grange Area Disaster Recovery Team explained that the Mennonite volunteers came at a time when La Grange needed it most. “It’s been slow, in the last 3 weeks I’ve had nobody volunteer-wise,” Melton said.

His team has been working to restore 70 permanent homes. Just before Christmas, one of those families was able to move back home. By the first of February, Melton hopes to have five of those families back.

Melton explained that La Grange needs more groups of volunteers like the Mennonites who are willing to put in longer amounts of time or even adopt a family to help them recover. For those who can’t put in that level of commitment, they are still looking for people who can help out for shorter periods of time, too.

Melton says their team appreciates help from those with construction experience, but they can also teach volunteers the skills they need. If you or a group you know is interested in helping out, contact Melton’s team at volunteercityoflg@gmail.com.

For Virginia Olenick, it’s tough for her to watch as her neighbors try to rebuild their lives as well. She recalls her father telling her of a time in 1935 when he anchored a boat to the top of their house during a flood, but she’d never seen flood waters like they were during Harvey. She hopes she never sees them again during her lifetime.

This new group of volunteers have given Olenick and her neighbors a glimmer of optimism in this long recovery process.

“We will make it, [we’ve] got to,” Olenick said. “There’s no two damn ways about it, we’ve got to make it. I’m too old not to make it.”

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