As Hurricane Isabel stormed toward the Atlantic coast, Jarrett Yehlen lay in bed at his Columbia apartment, unable to sleep. He wasn’t sure how badly Isabel would strike his hometown until his mother called him just before Isabel hit land:
“Jarrett, I’m preparing myself emotionally to lose everything.”
She didn’t lose everything. But most of the town did.
In 36 hours, Isabel cleared about half of the houses in Poquoson, a town with about 11,500 residents on the southeast edge of Virginia. Many residents still do not have electricity or phone service. Some are sleeping in their cars.
When Jarrett heard the news, it didn’t take long for guilt to set in.
“I was just overwhelmed,” he said. “I felt guilty for not being there to support everyone.”
So Jarrett, an MU senior, decided to start his own emergency relief drive, trying to collect supplies for his hometown and the surrounding area. Donations will be accepted at the MU Student Recreation Center through Friday.
Jarrett’s mom, Deb Yehlen, still can’t believe the damage.
“Every time I go down to our church, I’m in tears,” she said. “Just 500 yards from our house, it looks like a bomb has been dropped.”
The Yehlen’s house was spared from severe damage because it stands on the highest ground in Poquoson, about nine feet above sea level. Many of the homes in Poquoson remain flooded.
“This is saltwater flooding people’s homes, and saltwater destroys everything,” said Jim Thomas, minister of Trinity United Methodist Church in Poquoson, who lost a car in the storm. “The damage here runs the gamut. In my congregation, there’s been significant damage in about 350 to 400 houses.”
This should have been Poquoson’s most plentiful fishing season of the year. The town’s large seafood industry usually thrives at the end of September, but because much of the town still doesn’t have power, there is no way to refrigerate the catches.
Instead, mosquitoes from the flooded areas have swarmed Poquoson.
“The mosquitoes in Poquoson are like B-52 bombers,” Deb Yehlen said. “They’re so bad the elementary school had to cancel recess.”
In addition to bug spray, other supplies especially needed by victims are toiletries, cleaning supplies, towels, blankets and nonperishable food.
Jarrett Yehlen still doesn’t know how the supplies will get to Virginia, but he’s hoping a local company will donate a truck for the cause.
“If I have to drive the supplies out to Poquoson myself, that’d be fine,” he said.
Deb Yehlen said she was not surprised her son has started an effort to help families in his hometown.
“He’s always been a leader, and I’m very proud of what he’s doing,” she said.
But Jarrett Yehlen doesn’t seek any credit for himself.
“This is not about me; this is about the people out there that are left with nothing,” he said. “This is about the people who are sleeping in their cars because their homes have been destroyed. If I can get just a few supplies and donations for them, that’s better than nothing.”