DETROIT - After 17 surgeries from a bone-crushing fall, Dwayne Richard vowed that if he could get out of a wheelchair, he would repay his gratitude with acts of kindness to the world. That's how he ended up in Sanford, Michigan.
His wife, Tabitha, read news of the two dams failing north of Midland last week, destroyed homes and tattered lives in her Facebook feed, and decided the family of four would head north from their home just north of Lafayette, Louisiana.
She contacted the Michigan governor's office and the United Way of Midland County.
The response was immediate, Dwayne Richard said: "We were surprised."
So the handyman and his family drove 19 hours north on Memorial Day, with a U-Haul and truck full of clothes and cleaning supplies. They had leftover donations after collecting to help five families left homeless by a 150-mph tornado at home.
"When we seen the devastation up here, we thought that would be the best place to bring it. So we packed up and headed on over," said Dwayne Richard, 43, recalling his path through Mississippi, Kentucky and Ohio.
The family packed onions, bell pepper, seasoning, chicken and sausage - all the fixins for homemade gumbo - on ice and hit the road.
On Monday, they cooked classic jambalaya for flood victims outside a middle school.
Early Tuesday, Dwayne Richard (pronounced re-SHARD) stirred roux in a pot outside the Red Oak Restaurant in downtown Sanford with his son, Taj, daughter, Hannah, and her boyfriend, John Marceaux.
They brought huge pots and prepared everything fresh on-site.
"We packed everything in ice chests and we'll have about 15 gallons worth of gumbo when we're done," he said while cooking, as he talked about seeing rubble and just bare foundations left in places where homes had been swept away.
"Once we finish cooking, we'll clean up and see if they need us. Then we'll pack up and head home. We have more work to do for those families who lost their homes in the tornado," Richard said. "I'm not a super religious person. I have God in my heart."
He drifted back to 2017 and his memory of four weeks in ICU and more in rehab.
After seeing how strangers "lifted the burden" from his family, Richard said, now that's how he spends his life _ whether it's helping medical patients pay electric bills or giving Christmas gifts to families who just can't.
"I give back because it's been done for me," he said, noting that this was his first trip to The Mitten.
No big-name celebraties are involved in this small-town event.
No Bono. No Lady Gaga. No Paul McCartney.
But there are lots of national and international newspaper headlines. One local resident said she counted five TV trucks from just one news network. It all seems to help.
"The mayor of Baton Rouge called. And the Cajun Navy came here," said Mayor Maureen Donker of Midland early Tuesday. "If you would see our streets, it's so sad. You're seeing families and their whole house out on the curb. And then you have to manage your emotions, your kids' emotions. ... It's a lot of grieving and anger. But it's also beautiful - in that you can really see how people care and work to take care of one another."
Hers is a community coordinating relief for Midland and its tiny neighbors of Edenville and Sanford that have been ripped to shreds by flooding after two major dams north of Midland failed last week.
Dave Maddox saw a trucker quoted in the news who couldn't find a face mask in Midland and didn't have one to wear while emptying a flood- and sewage-damaged house.
"I own a small business in Chesterfield Township ... and have thousands of masks in stock and would be willing to donate some," he wrote to the Free Press. "Any idea where I would begin?"
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Because of the pandemic, he explained, Michigan Valve & Fitting had to pivot from ordering things for the automotive industry to safety equipment. Now he plans to donate 200 face shields and 3,500 N-95 masks to the flood relief effort, having connected with first the mayor and then United Way.
"Our customers were in need of masks, so we shifted gears," Maddox, 53, said. "I was fortunate, able to get a (federal) PPP (paycheck protection program) loan to keep my employees on staff. We would've laid them off if that hadn't happened."
He was scheduled to make the 90-minute drive to Midland to deliver the personal protection equipment Tuesday.
Not only have individuals from all parts of the U.S. reached out, but major companies have responded to local pleas as well as corporate outreach from the executive team at Dow Chemical.
"For Dow, they've not only offered resources but they're pulling things out of their plants in Louisiana and airlifting them up here," Holly Miller, CEO of United Way of Midland County, said Tuesday. "This morning, we heard we had run out of gloves for cleanup in our community so they're bringing that in on the Dow shuttle. ... Groups from across the country are showing up with truckloads of hand sanitizer, food, PPE, cleanup kits. Everything you could imagine."
Now, she said, the crisis teams are working to reach out to all families throughout the region who have been impacted, and document the damage and figure out what families need to recover. The organization is preparing to deploy thousands of disaster relief volunteers from across the state and the country.
"We're moving from crisis to working to establish long-term recovery," Miller said. "Today it may be about getting wet items removed from houses and initial cleanup. Moving forward, we are working to ensure every step of the recovery takes place in the next 12 to 18 months."