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FLOODWATER CAN'T WASH AWAY LOVE Kind strangers save Mo. wedding


FESTUS, Mo. -- Kimberly Lynn Flieg and Scott Eric Peters were married Saturday at the First Baptist Church of Festus-Crystal City. A canoe was tied to the church steps. Just in case.

The church stood like an island in an 8-foot-high lake called Truman Boulevard. Water rose above the basement windows, defeated -- for now -- by 70,000 sandbags filled and hauled by scores of volunteers.

And that was the thing: Most of these volunteers -- these people who saved a church and also a wedding Saturday -- were strangers. Not church members, not town residents. Absolute strangers. Good Samaritans.

It is happening all over the Midwest. Many thousands of good people in the heartland of America are spontaneously responding to strangers in need, strangers imperiled by the Great Flood of '93.

"This kind of thing brings out the best," said Sharon Flieg, the bride's mother who had planned the wedding for three years and saw it happen, thanks to people she did not know. "It's amazing. People are just . . . well, it really restores your faith in people.

"You really can't thank them," Mrs. Flieg said. "How can you thank them?"

Many asked that question Saturday; no one could answer it. There was too much work to do, too many volunteers to thank.

Washington has promised aid, but people for now are unable to wait for federal help. People like Rick Hite, 41, had to do it the old-fashioned way -- by themselves and through the kindness of strangers.

Mr. Hite, a member of the First Baptist Church, lugged sandbags Saturday. He wore a teal Florida Marlins baseball cap. He acquired it last year when he traveled to South Florida and helped with the recovery from Hurricane Andrew.

But Mr. Hite, a modest man, did not want to talk about that. He wanted to talk about the volunteers who sweated this weekend alongside him at his church.

"I was talking to a guy yesterday. He was driving through here from Connecticut and he just heard it on the radio. He said, 'I just thought I would stop and help.'

"I don't know what to say about people like that. That's . . . that's . . . I don't know. What can you say? 'Thank you' seems insufficient."

A few blocks away -- no, make that a few hundred yards of water away -- shop owners Orville and Lois Douglas of Festus watched helplessly as the flood rippled closer, steadily closer, always closer.

It rolled up Main Street, just 10 yards away now from their gift store, a neat little shop in a neat little town of 8,105 that finds itself too close to the Mississippi River.

The water already penetrated John's Butcher Shop and Main Street Records and Gerald's Men's Wear. Across the street, it approached Theodoro's restaurant, the one with the sign "Open. Float On In."

On Friday, a dozen strangers helped the Douglases build a four-foot wall of sandbags. "They tried to save our small business. It's a mom-and-pop business. It's the American dream. The American dream is a bit soggy right now, but I'll never forget those people," Ms. Douglas said.

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