Special to the Daily News
When Bev Ferguson arrived at Liberty Centre Services in Norfolk on the morning of March 14, she saw flood waters rising to the top of the levees located just behind the building to the east.
Ferguson, who is the Liberty Centre’s director of organizational effectiveness, said she immediately went into emergency mode.
“I have no emotions in an emergency. That’s probably my best time,” she said. “My safety really never crossed my mind too much.”
Ferguson quickly mobilized the staff to make sure residents of the mental health rehabilitation center were safe.
Ferguson and Patty Skokan, executive director of the center, worked together to get residents of the independent living apartments to Lutheran High Northeast across town, where a shelter had been established and there were volunteers on deck.
“Part way through it started,” Skokan said.
“Freezing rain,” Ferguson added.
“It was like knives coming down,” said Candice Mohnson, who lives in one of Liberty Centre’s resident apartments.
Despite the stinging sleet, 30 Liberty Centre community members soon found themselves in the library at Lutheran High Northeast. Staff and volunteers tried to do their best to create a comfortable and calm atmosphere — something more like a slumber party than an evacuation. Residents had cots and blankets. They could watch movies, eat or get weather updates.
Liberty Centre staff members even retrieved pets from residents’ homes so they could enjoy them in the shelter and feel more at home.
“I was bawling, and then they brought the cats,” Mohnson said. “I just felt so much relief and thankful because they had taken the time to get my cat.”
Amid the stress of the evacuation, Liberty Centre residents were able to find a moment of peace with the help of the volunteers at Lutheran High. Volunteers handed out water and set up food stations for the evacuees.
“The way everybody was, it was awesome to see people, you know, come together like that and help us out,” Mohnson said. “It was really a hard time … and all of us worrying about our apartments. It was very scary, but we had each other at least.”
Liberty Centre client Connie Leffers decided to put her “mother hen” personality to use during the evacuation. After picking up her friends and making sure everyone had a ride to the shelter, she volunteered to help as a nurse by checking on the welfare of those at Lutheran High.
Meanwhile, as residents were settling in their temporary shelter, Ferguson remained in action mode. She was on a mission to secure the residents’ medication in the event of flooding so they wouldn’t have to worry about losing it or not being able to replace it should pharmacies be impacted by flooding.
She emptied cardboard boxes to organize medicines to make sure the residents would be safe and comfortable no matter how long the evacuation lasted.
For clients like Leffers, access to medicine was an important consideration and one more worry to add to a long list. Many residents already were anxious about their apartments and pets and the uncertainty in general. So having someone take care of the medicine issue was a relief.
In the end, Liberty Centre administrators, staff and residents said they see the flooding experience as an opportunity for learning and growth.
“Since we didn’t suffer the destruction of the flood, it’s made us more aware of what other people are going through and how fortunate we have been,” Ferguson said. “It just makes you look to see what in the world you could do to help them — because you could see very well it could have been you.”
Looking ahead, Skokan said, she hopes people will continue to help those in surrounding communities to recover.
“What happens sometimes is, in the very immediate time, people rush to go that first week,” she said. “Partly because they want to see it, partly because they want to help, but as it goes a little further, it gets really hard then because there’s still a lot of work to do.”
She also noted that in coming months, many people may need assistance with mental health.
The March 14 flood was the first time Liberty Centre had to enact its emergency evacuation plans. Administrators said they were happy that it went so smoothly.
Leffers offered her personal perspective.
“God’s still in control,” she said. “We can worry about or try to plan what we want, but God’s still in control.”