When flooding devastated parts of Colorado recently, the epic natural disaster, which killed at least eight people and destroyed more than 2,000 homes, dominated the news, until the news moved on—to a terror attack in Kenya and the diplomatic dance between Washington and Tehran. In Colorado, though, the story was far from over. Among the dozens of aid groups still on the ground helping put people’s lives back together were the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army, Save the Children, the United Way, Helping Pets, and the nonprofit Christian relief organization Samaritan’s Purse. And among the thousands of aid workers who flocked to the state from around the country to offer help was Wayne Shoemaker.
Shoemaker, 56, is the guy responsible for coordinating the vast nationwide army that Samaritan’s Purse can marshal with an email blast. And so he watches the weather in a way that you or I might find a little morbid—tracking fires, floods, earthquakes, and hurricanes. If it’s big enough, if the number of people affected soars into the dozens, he knows he might be on the next flight out of Charlotte, North Carolina.
At press time, he could be found in Niwot, Colorado, sleeping on the floor of Rocky Mountain Christian Church. Sleeping very little, that is. Since arriving in Colorado five days earlier, Shoemaker had been working from 5 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. every day. His first task was to mobilize the organization’s 18-wheeler, which was loaded with key equipment such as air compressors, wheelbarrows, trash cans, shovels, rakes, chain saws, power washers, ladders, and hammers. When volunteers started to arrive from around the country, he put them to work in those parts of Colorado hardest hit by the floods. It is a grueling task that rarely affords Shoemaker or the other volunteers with any fame or glory. “There is an extreme amount of mud that has washed into these areas,” Shoemaker tells Newsweek. “Sometimes it takes a team of 20 to 25 people [to work] on a house for 2 or 3 days to get it done.”
It is also a tough job emotionally. Shoemaker sends out teams of assessors each day to help him decide who needs Samaritan’s Purse the most—single moms, the disabled, the elderly, or the uninsured—then he dispatches teams of volunteers to the affected homes. Often the aid has a snowball effect. Once residents see volunteers in bright orange shirts helping their neighbors, Shoemaker gets bombarded with new calls. Can you come to my house next? Can I help?
The hardest decisions come when it’s clear a home is beyond salvation. After the floods, Shoemaker went to a trailer park in Lyons where the homes had been picked up and scattered about like rubber ducks in a bathtub, smashing into each other. The homes were beyond hope; the residents in peril. One man was found living under a nearby bridge. “He had nowhere else to go,” Shoemaker said. “There are so many people. Sometimes you just don’t know what to do.”