Minot paints Stars of HOPE for Hurricane Sandy victims

Minot commemorated its own devastating natural disaster Saturday afternoon before getting to work helping victims of a different one half a continent away.

“A Celebration of HOPE” was held at Scandinavian Heritage Park in Minot Saturday to mark the two-year anniversary of the Souris River flood and pass on some much-needed hope to the people of Howard Beach, N.Y., who were affected by Hurricane Sandy in October 2012.

At precisely 12:57 p.m. a bell sounded and everyone in the park released balloons, watching them float lazily into the sky before disappearing into the distance. It was exactly two years ago, June 22, 2011, when sirens in Minot sounded at 12:57 p.m. to warn residents the levee system had been breached and Minot was about to be flooded.

A few minutes later a Star of HOPE ceremony was held to pass a star from Minot to Howard Beach, much like a star had been passed from Joplin, Mo. to Minot last year. Joplin was devastated by a tornado in May 2011.

Patrick Samuels, Stars of HOPE project director and fire chief in Groesbeck, Texas, said this was his second trip to Minot and he has seen a lot of improvement to the Magic City since his first trip in September of last year.

“I know there’s still a lot of people out there hurting and struggling to make it, but I do believe we have hope, there is hope here, and I have faith that you will overcome completely and get back to normal,” Samuels said.

Stars of HOPE began in 2007 after Samuels’ hometown of Groesbeck, which has around 5,000 people, was hit by a tornado in December 2006. Samuels said the founder of New York Says Thank You, an organization created to help disaster-stricken communities around the country the same way New York was helped after the Sept. 11 attacks, called to see how they could help after seeing news of the tornado.

They came in September 2007 and built a new home for Samuels’ brother and sister-in-law. Samuels said watching people from all over the country come to Groesbeck and build a new home from scratch in four short days had a profound effect on him.

“It wasn’t my personal home that was hit, it was family, but still I was impacted by the amount of love and the outpouring of love from the people around the country that volunteered to come there and spend four straight days building this house,” Samuels said.

After the house was built, Samuels said his family felt the need to pay the hope they had received forward.

“We started this project called Stars of HOPE to bring back color and hope to communities that had been hit by disaster,” Samuels said. “We generally try to empower children to have an impact on their communities.”

The idea Samuels’ family came up with to pay it forward was simple – painting some wooden stars and cutting stakes to place them on. The original idea was to do it once, for the people of Greensburg, Kan., who where struck by a tornado May 2007. They took about 300 stars there and planted them in the tornado-devastated landscape.

“It impacted them so much that we decided that we would continue this project after that. It was just going to be a one-time deal, just to help them out,” Samuels said. “But disasters happen, unfortunately. There’s always a disaster around.”

Stars of HOPE has held around a dozen different events around the country and world in places like Texas, Missouri, Alabama, New York, New Jersey, Georgia, Arkansas, Kansas, Iowa, Illinois and Japan, in addition to Minot. What started as a family project has grown to include hundreds of volunteers.

More information can be found on the Stars of HOPE Facebook page.

Samuels said one thing that links all those different communities affected by natural disasters is the sense of hope and pride all the residents share. It’s something he sees in Minot, as well.

“The biggest thing that we have found that our impact has made is that we bring hope to the community and that hope transcends into paying it forward,” Samuels said. “In 2012 we had the Unity March in Joplin on their one-year anniversary of their massive tornado and it was very warming to see how that community pulled together, just as I’ve seen this community pull together.”

Dan Hansen, who has put on benefit concerts in Minot for a number of years, helped bring some free music to the event. In addition, there was also free food, face painting, and a jump castle for children.

Hansen remembers vividly where he was when the sirens sounded in Minot two years ago.

“We were clearing out some last-minute things at my parents’ house when the sirens went off and I said to my dad, ‘Dad, nothing here is worth dying for. So we need to get out. We don’t know when the water’s coming. It could come in a minute, it could come in an hour. The sirens are going off so we might as well get out of here,'” Hansen said. “It was an interesting moment.”

Hansen said it was hard for his father to leave some things behind they didn’t have time to move, but they could only get so much out. He said they got around 95 percent of the irreplaceable things like pictures out, but just ran out of time. After some coaxing, Hansen finally got his father to leave for safety.

“It was hard. It’s something that I think we’re still dealing with and it’s something that we’ll deal with for a long time,” Hansen said. “It’s a very traumatizing moment and in the moment you didn’t really know how to feel or react to what was happening because you had never gone through something like that before.”

Hansen said the family tried to stay as positive as possible and didn’t pity themselves because so many other people were going through the exact same thing. From the moment the sirens went off until recovery began, the Hansen family counted their blessings, chief among them being that no one had died.

Much like the community as a whole, Hansen’s family is picking up the pieces and rebuilding. His parents were able to move back into their same house this past fall, and work on it is about 98 percent done.

Hansen said it was kind of surreal moving things back into the house after the flood, but the work quickly became grueling as there were items scattered in three different locations all around Minot.

“It was good to get back but the fact that we had to move enough stuff that 35 years of marriage had accrued – that wasn’t fun,” he said with a laugh.

Meliah Ross was at “A Celebration of HOPE” with two of her children – Emily, 9, and Ivan, 8. The kids were painting stars while Ross helped them and other painters, as well. Ross just moved to Minot about a year ago with her four children and husband, who is stationed at Minot Air Force Base.

Ross said she found out about “A Celebration of HOPE” on Facebook and became involved immediately.

“It’s smart. It’s a good idea involving the community and it’s fun. The kids, especially, they love it,” Ross said. “They get to paint and get dirty. Where’s the fun in not getting dirty?”

Ross said when she was a child churches got involved during disasters but communities usually didn’t take an active hand in helping residents out. She said that is changing and she wants to teach her children how important it is to help others in times of need.

Ross was in St. Louis when the flood hit Minot in 2011, and said the news coverage of the disaster down south was insane.

“We saw tons of stuff on the news,” she said.

Ross remembers the base they were stationed at gathered up supplies and sent them on a truck to Minot to help out.

When they moved to Minot, Ross said she was hopeful that everyone would eventually be able to rebuild or move to a safer location. She knew the destruction had been bad but said the thing that surprised her most was just how big Minot was.

“Everyone kept telling us how small and flat Minot was, and it really wasn’t. It’s really big, it’s ridiculous,” Ross said. “I still am getting lost in this town and I lived in St. Louis. The back roads are the way to go in this town. I found out that the hard way.”

Ross said Minot is doing really well compared to other towns she’s seen that have been hit by natural disasters. She likes the can-do attitude of Minot residents and loves living here.

“I think it’s great,” she said. “It’s too bad there’s not enough houses. More people would live here.”

Two years later, Minot has come a long way. Samuels said even though Stars of HOPE is a simple project, it provides a powerful message. A message that helps empower communities to look forward to the future, not dwell on the past.

“That’s one of the messages we try to get across. We’re all disaster survivors, we’ve all been through it, and we’ve all seen the other side when it gets better,” Samuels said. “So we want to pass that message along.”