Their flooded home a loss, meeting a United Way volunteer offers a glimpse of hope (conclusion of a 3-part series)

The waters were starting to recede as Debbie and her husband Steve were able to get back inside their flooded home.

(Editor’s note: The flooding that struck the Mid-South area in April and May caused devastation for many local families. While the waters have receded, the impact of the disaster continues to be a part of many lives. Paul Smothers has written a 3-part series which shares the experience of one such family, in hopes that people will continue to support United Way’s work with long-term recovery efforts. This is part 3 of the series – you can read part 1 here and part 2 here.)

When Debbie Gabbard and her husband returned to their trailer home days after the rains flooded Memphis in early May, their home was still locked up. They could not just walk inside anymore to survey the damage brought on by the flooding Mississippi River.

After proving their identities to a Shelby County Sheriff’s Deputy, Debbie and her husband had to climb a fence that was blocking the way into their home. Debbie was told that passers-by had taken video of the home because it was in such bad condition – her home, which had held 30 years of precious memories.

Standing at 5’4″, the waters literally came up to Debbie’s chin in some areas of the home. According to her husband, the water in the home had reached nearly 6 feet high before it started to recede. Walking through her house, Debbie’s feet were covered in mud.

“It took us a little while,” she said. “The flood waters had broken out windows. Our window unit air conditioner was busted, and there was cracked glass everywhere. You could tell, it had been pretty bad. There was mold growing everywhere. Our home had become contaminated, and we had to take extreme precautions.”

Debbie said at this point, even her husband was in tears seeing the condition of the home and the life the Gabbards had built for themselves – just taken away.

This is a view inside of Debbie and Steve Gabbard's flooded home. The family's refridgerator is showing the mold and mildew that is beginning to grow.

“Our floors looked like a mushy rollercoaster, up and down. Everywhere you looked, mold and mud. Words cannot explain. Furry mold looking like hair was growing everywhere. I was crying so hard,” Debbie said.

For days, the Gabbards kept returning to their flooded home. Everywhere they looked, household treasures were destroyed. Anything Debbie or her husband would pick up and hold in their hands would crumble. They did not know what to do at this point. The mobile home park landlord told them the homes in the park were going to be demolished. All Debbie needed to do was give her signature.

An official letter notified the Gabbards that they had until the end of June to have everything in their home moved out. The lots were going to be cleared off and the mobile homes were no longer going to be there. Debbie was heartbroken and swore to go by and see her home of 30 years every day until it was gone.

The Gabbards had been living in a motel during and after the flooding, and later moved into an unfurnished rental house owned by a friend. The temporary animal shelter they had used was closing, so they had to get their two cats and three dogs.

“We ended up moving into a house with only two dining room chairs, a television and the few clothes we had,” Debbie said. The rental home did not have appliances or bedding, and the Gabbards had to purchase items to make the condition livable. “We had a roof over our head, and our children were okay. We did have blessings,” Debbie says.

Slowly replacing flood-lost household items, the Gabbards were starting to see things get better. Debbie’s husband found out when the mobile home park office was going to destroy the homes at a meeting with the park’s landlord. He came back from the meeting with a United Way flyer in his hand.

The Gabbard's back porch shows flood damage.

“It was a United Way flyer that explained to us what United Way does,” said Debbie. “It gave us information on someone who could help us with the IRS (Internal Revenue Service) and explained about the disaster survival kit. I called the number on flyer. We found someone at the disaster relief center and that’s when our life started to change for the better!”

The Gabbards found help from Jeraldine Hunter-Gaddes, a former IRS employee who has worked with United Way for years helping individuals and companies with free tax assistance. Hunter-Gaddes has been encouraging taxpayers to file Disaster Recovery Claims if they were in federally-declared disaster areas and had lost belongings.

“Jeraldine was fantastic,” Debbie said.  “She walked us through everything and told us exactly what we needed to do.”

The Gabbard family used the IRS Disaster Recovery Claim, and were qualified to receive tax money already paid in 2010. Debbie said because of United Way and the help she received from Jeraldine, the family will receive an IRS check because of their Disaster Recovery Claim.

“That may not be whole lot to some people, but to us…it’s a lot,” she said. “We are so thankful to United Way. You always hear people say that life passes before them in just seconds. Standing on the remains of the porch of my old house, I remembered the first stay I brought my daughter home. This is where my first grandchild was born and raised. Everything over the past 30 years took place within that house.”

“I drive by there to this day, look over and look in. That place will always be my home.”

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