A Christmas miracle
SAYRE — On a block in East Sayre, where most homes sit dark and vacant after September’s devastating flood, one home’s lights were on for Christmas, with a proud family inside enjoying their traditional meal after months of hard work and determination to be there.
Rose Hannis lives on the corner of Garden and East Street on the east side of Sayre. Her yard extends to the dike along the Susquehanna River. So when the remnants of Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee caused the river to rise to concerning levels the evening of Sept. 7, Rose’s home was looking particularly vulnerable.
Her son, Michael Hannis, was with her that evening. He said he, his wife Jenny and Rose were in the house that evening keeping an eye on the river and the amount of seepage in the yard.
When they started to notice traces of water in the basement, they knew they needed to get proactive.
“It started with two puddles in the basement,” said Michael. “That was Wednesday evening around 7 p.m.”
By midnight, the basement was holding six inches of water. Michael had two pumps running in the basement throughout the night, which he said appeared to keep the situation manageable. However, around 4 a.m., when emergency officials were on the street giving evacuation notices, he said he realized the situation was beyond his control – the house was going to be flooded.
Jenny immediately began making her way through the house in search of important items worth saving.
“It was hectic,” said Jenny. “I just started grabbing important stuff and running it upstairs.”
Having lived in the house over sixty years, Rose had witnessed many floods up close. But this was the first flood to ever force her to evacuate.
Michael and Jenny said they were hesitant to remove Rose from the home in the middle of the chaotic mass evacuation. They, instead, kept a close eye on the river levels and held off until the sun had risen.
“I didn’t want her to be evacuated at that time of night,” said Michael. “I wanted to hold off until daybreak, if we could, when she could at least see what was going on.”
At around 6 a.m. Thursday, just as water began spilling over the levee, Michael and Jenny evacuated Rose to their house in Wilawana.
“There was a bit of anxiety,” said Michael. “We kept getting hearsay on what was happening with the Chemung River. I wasn’t sure if we were going to be cut off from our house and stranded with her in the Valley.”
The water would continue to rise for roughly the next 24 hours before finally cresting on Friday, Sept. 9. During that time, Rose’s property – spanning from the edge of the dike to East Street – became an extension of the Susquehanna river. At its peak, the ground floor of her home would be inundated with over seven feet of water.
By the following Sunday, the water had receded enough that borough officials allowed the Hannis’ to re-enter the home. Rose’s children all went to assess the damage that day, but she would not see the inside of the house until it was fully restored.
“We didn’t want her to have to see it like that,” said Rose’s daughter Helen Sides. “Anything she wanted to know, we told her. But we really didn’t want her to see what it looked like.”
When they arrived at the property, much of the yard was still holding water. Around the house where the water had receded, a sprawl of mud and debris covered the ground. Rose’s other daughter, Irene Slocum, said the smell in the air is what she remembers most about that moment.
“It’s a smell I’ll never forget,” said Irene. “A sweet, sickening odor with the smell of oil mixed in.”
Among the debris deposited throughout the yard was one neighbor’s old work shed and another’s dog house. Even though Rose didn’t have an oil tank in her home, neighbors’ tanks still managed to pollute the water around her home.
The ground floor of the house was devastated, Michael said. Each room and its contents would need to be gutted, completely sanitized and completely refinished before it could be considered habitable again.
But the Hannis’ took no time to collect sympathy before rolling up their sleeves and getting to work on the seemingly insurmountable task that lay before them.
“With something like that, you just have to get started,” said Michael. “You can’t waste time. Some people have waited, but the longer you wait the worse things get.”
“Mike had just bought a new flag to hang on Sept. 11,” said Helen. “When we arrived that day, he went up and hung it on the porch and we got started, just like that. It was like the mission had begun.”
For the next three-and-a-half months, the Hannis children – along with their spouses, family, friends and a legion of other volunteers – would work tirelessly to restore the home they grew up in.
“Mike was determined to get her back in there as soon as possible,” said Helen. “We were hopeful we might get her home before Christmas, but we weren’t sure for a long time.”
Each of the Hannis’ daily routines changed dramatically during the recovery process. When they weren’t working to rebuild the house, they were taking Rose to flood relief meetings or visiting the Valley Distribution Center for supplies. “Your whole routine changes when you’re taking on something like this,” said Michael. “You can’t even imagine until you experience it, but it consumes you. I would go to bed each night and wake up each morning thinking about it.”
“I’d say Mike worked down here every night until at least 9 p.m.,” said Irene. “After getting out of work at 5 p.m. he would come here and easily work four hours each night.”
But the Hannis’ weren’t alone in their efforts. Almost every day, they would be joined by volunteers they had never met.
“Every time we turned around, there were people we didn’t even know helping. It’s like you would come in and there would be three guys you didn’t even know helping tear up the kitchen,” said Irene. “It just really shows you all of the good in people.”
“It made me have a whole new belief in humanity,” said Michael. “I would look down the street on a Saturday afternoon and see a mass of school-aged children looking to help people out. They didn’t know what they were doing, they just wanted to do something. It was amazing.”
Michael said he feels like the experience has created a sort of brotherhood among local flood survivors.
“At every recovery event, and out here when you’re working, you run into the same people and you’re all going through the same thing,” said Michael. “I’ve bonded with people on this street I hadn’t talked to in 15 years.”
All of their hard work and sacrifice would eventually pay off, as the holidays approached and Rose’s home began to look as if it would be suitable to host the family’s traditional Christmas dinner.
By Christmas Eve, all of the work was done. The interior of the house looked brand new and the Hannis’ proudly hosted not one, but two Christmas dinners for over 20 members of their extended family.
“I think being able to have dinner here made us all feel really good. Like we had finally done it,” said Helen.
Needless to say, the Hannis’ have nothing but gratitude to express to their family and friends who helped throughout the recovery; the dozens of anonymous volunteers who they may likely never run into again; the public officials and first responders who also worked tirelessly throughout the flood and recovery process; and the volunteer organizations that helped get them through the process.
“I’m just so proud of this valley and all of our neighbors,” said Irene. “It’s been such a moving experience you could make a movie about it.”
The Hannis’ said they are extremely grateful for organizations like the Salvation Army and American Red Cross, whose volunteers would constantly stop by the house and deliver food and supplies so that those working on the house didn’t have to leave.
“They just make you feel better,” said Michael. “They were always there with food when we were hungry, or cleaning supplies when we were needing them. That’s a service that is just so valuable when you’re going through something like this.”
The Hannis’ noted that all of the new materials and appliances were purchased through Croft Lumber in Sayre, where Jenny Hannis works.
With her house back in order, Rose Hannis is now planning to officially move back in January. After witnessing such determination and hard work from children and volunteers, it is hard for her to have anything negative to say about the experience.
“I don’t complain,” said Rose. “Other people out there have it worse than I do.”
Colin Hogan can be reached at colin@morning times.com