AVANT — It’s going on nine months since spring 2019 flooding caused widespread damage to public infrastructure and private homes in Osage County. While much of the public infrastructure is in pretty good shape, the recovery is still very much a work in progress for a lot of private citizens — particularly in the small town of Avant, where the high water was characterized as a 500-year flood.
The town’s estimated population as of 2017 was 304 people, and 249 people — 81 families — needed help after the worst of the flooding, in late May 2019. A variety of private, faith-based organizations have participated in efforts to save and repair homes in Avant — Baptists, Methodists, Catholics have all pitched in — but none has made quite the long-term commitment to the community that the Mennonite Disaster Service has made.
“We wouldn’t be going near as fast without Bill (Mast) and his crew,” says local electrical contractor Joe Northrup, of Joe’z Electric, who has worked alongnside MDS volunteers. “So, I’ve been working with them since the word ‘go’ and I’ve been enjoying every minute of it.”
In August, Mennonite volunteers were renovating a badly damaged residence known as “the Teacherage,” owned by the Avant School. A price of some $49,000 had been quoted to restore the house, and the school didn’t have that kind of money to spend on it. MDS spent $5,000 on the supplies to repair the structure, and was granted permission to house its workers there rent-free. MDS used its base in Avant to train several volunteers who went on to work in Houston, Texas, and the organization’s volunteers have provided assistance for numerous families in the Avant community by doing jobs such as replacing roofs and flooring.
“Nobody can believe they’ll do all this for nothing,” says Nona Roach, a member of the Avant Recovery Co-op (ARC), which coordinates with both govenmental and private organizations. Roach keeps track of the details of flood recovery work in Avant, noting which groups did what for specific families that suffered property damage.
Whether it’s a homeowner who contracted e coli, or a family with an autistic child, or a man who was injured in an industrial accident, she knows who they are and what has been done for them. Frequently, the MDS has had something to do with offering to help. That’s true for Roach’s extended family as well — the MDS is currently working on a house for her nephew, Justin Chitwood, who is disabled as a result of a motorcycle accident and depends on his 18-year-old daughter, Lexy, as a caregiver and inspiration.
“She’s the reason why I’m still here. She wouldn’t let me give up,” Chitwood says of his daughter. He adds that he considers the new house being constructed by MDS to be her house.
Similarly, Roach, Northrup, the MDS and numerous others appear determined not to let Avant give up. Roach explains that charitable assistance from outside entities, such as Bailey Medical Center in Owasso, and Riveted Church in Skiatook resulted in the Christmas wish lists of Avant children being fulfilled and Santa Claus visiting the town.
“Christmas was amazing for our kids,” Roach said.
Northrup, who has pumped water out of the basement of the school on more than one occasion, said there’s plenty more work to be done to get Avant residents back into their home, or to get them into new homes.
“There’s no telling when we’ll be done,” he said. “We’ve got houses that haven’t been started on yet.”
Roach points out that senior citizens, disabled persons and the impoverished account for a significant portion of Avant’s population. Very few residents had flood insurance, and government payments through the Federal Emergency Management Agency to replace badly damaged homes frequently don’t pay for too much.
What sticks in Roach’s mind and prompts her to admire MDS is the response of Bill Mast, the leader of its group in Avant, when she asked him how long MDS wanted to stay.
“Till the last person’s back in their house,” he said.