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Opening Doors to Each Other

When the flood came to a small town, its people learned a great deal about being good neighbors

When the Mississippi River shoved its way into Portage Des Sioux, Mo., last July, Debbie Burckhardt and other townspeople opened the doors to their homes so that the uninvited guest would not barge them down.

After the river had done what it pleased in her whitewashed house and gone back to its banks a half-mile away, Ms. Burckhardt returned home to find a carpet of mud several inches thick, bowed walls and ceilings, and a luxuriant coat of mildew. It was not until the end of the first day cleaning up that Burkhardt and her neighbors discovered perhaps the most poignant legacy from the Great Flood of '93: Their warped front doors refused to shut.

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Today some of the doors are repaired and decked with wreaths. Although many residents still have not moved back into their homes, the town sparkles and shines a bit like Christmases past.

But the flood has changed Christmas here, along with most everything else. As Burckhardt and her neighbors look back on the waning year, they see that when they opened their front doors to the river, they were also opening themselves up to one another.

The Mississippi stirred up some divisions in the town. It showed who would stand by their neighbors and who would cut and run.

``Everybody has something in common - they were all flooded - so it makes them join together and work together,'' says George Combs, mayor of Portage Des Sioux.

People hundreds of miles away felt the floodwaters vicariously. When the water ebbed briefly in August, some 40 residents from Chillicothe, Ohio, came with pumps, power washers, and other weapons against water and mud. The Ohioans scrubbed down the inside and outside of the post office, meeting hall, church, and several homes. They brought clothes for children, and during three other trips they helped restore electricity and the water and sewer systems.

``They've done a tremendous job for us,'' Mayor Combs says. They had apparently known firsthand the ravages of severe flooding and in 1990, when farmers in the Midwest sent hay for Chillicothe livestock during a devastating drought, the Ohioans vowed to someday return the favor in kind.

Townspeople also got help from Haddonfield, N.J. On Dec. 19, the southern New Jersey town gave Portage Des Sioux more than 300 Christmas gifts and $9,000.

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Like some of her neighbors, Burckhardt finds it hard to reconcile offers of aid with her diehard professional credo as town postmistress. Like the 500 other residents in Portage Des Sioux, she is proud of the history of their town, a settlement founded by the French in 1799. Throughout the flood Burckhardt kept the mail moving and dry. When the water rose toward record levels in mid-July she moved the mail from the post office to a school. After a few weeks, she was forced to higher ground some eight miles away by boat across flooded cornfields.

Although the Mississippi failed to keep Burckhardt from her appointed rounds, she learned that she could not hope to save her home without help from others.

Burckhardt moved back into her home on Dec. 13 and lives with her son and two daughters in two second-floor bedrooms. Downstairs, Burckhardt had to tear out the sodden interior walls and all that stands there now is a bare Christmas tree.

This Christmas Burckhardt has saved her best display for her neighbors. She has restored and whitewashed a picket fence and displayed a graceful string of pine garlands.

``There are some people, especially the ones from Chillicothe, who we will be friends with for a very long time to come,'' says Burckhardt.``Definitely, people's good sides have been shown in the flood,'' she says.

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