VICKSBURG, Miss. — Ashley Dickinson was not yet in preschool when the Mississippi River flooded the part of Missouri where she grew up near St. Louis.
Some of her family's land was deluged, and the lives of many of many people in her community were changed dramatically by the power of nature.
Now, Dickinson, a 21-year-old from St. Charles, Mo., is one of several AmeriCorps volunteers working on flood preparation in Mississippi. Some in the federally funded program are working in the local emergency operations center in Vicksburg. Others are filling sandbags. Some have helped improve the floodwall that protects downtown Vicksburg by filling cracks with tar.
While shoveling sand into bags, Dickinson said she's doing what she can to help Mississippi residents whose homes and businesses are threatened by the same river that menaced her hometown near St. Louis in 1993.
"I know what this is like," Dickinson said Thursday, wiping sweat off her forehead.
The college-age volunteers are part of the National Civilian Community Corps, a program within AmeriCorps. They come from several states, including Michigan, New Jersey, Indiana and New York.
Vicksburg for the past two years has been home to the southern region campus for AmeriCorps NCCC; the program is housed in a white-columned building that used to be a residential Episcopal school.
About 160 AmeriCorps volunteers a year are based in the city, and they work on disaster recovery and other projects in 11 states — Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. The volunteers are 18 to 24 years old, and they serve in AmeriCorps for 10-month stints.
Tim Griffith, 23, of Columbus, Ohio, said he has spent the past several months in AmeriCorps helping with Hurricane Katrina recovery in Louisiana and Mississippi and working at a food bank to help residents of the Mobile, Ala., area affected by last year's Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
Now, he's on flood duty and is helping emergency officials gather contact information for Vicksburg-area residents who might need extra assistance in case of flooding — those with special medical needs, for example.
"I'm glad I'm helping people, but it's unfortunate that these disasters keep happening in this region," Griffith said.
Marie Thompson, policy director for the city of Vicksburg, said the AmeriCorps workers are adept at disaster preparation and response.
"They've been a godsend to us," Thompson said.
The volunteers, clad in gray T-shirts and khaki pants or shorts, have directed traffic, handed out water to city workers and distributed packets of emergency preparation information to hundreds of homes. This comes at no cost to the city that stands to lose revenue because high water has idled some local manufacturers and closed some of the riverboat casinos.
At the city-run natural gas plant in Vicksburg, several AmeriCorps volunteers have been filling sandbags to go around public works facilities. They worked in pairs: One would hold open a green plastic burlap bag, about two feet tall, while the other would shovel sand and dump it in the bag. It was sweaty labor.
Mitchell Leavelle, a 20-year-old from Indianapolis with a tattoo of Jesus on his right arm, said the impending flood motivates him to work hard.
"If it wasn't that serious, I'm sure I'd be complaining," Leavelle said as he tied the top of a sandbag.