“Heroes and Hand Raisers” is a new series created by United Way of Midland County in partnership with Midland Daily News. Each week, snapshots of volunteerism and human generosity—via quotes, photos, snippets and stories—will shine a spotlight on those who are impacting our community by raising their hand to help meet the needs of their neighbors.

Ernie Dinninger didn’t know what to do.

The floors of his home were buckling. The basement held over two feet of water. The bathrooms, the living room, the utility room…all damaged.

Ernie had purchased the house along Wixom Lake six years ago. It was the getaway spot for him and his wife Joan. They had a driveway and neighbors. They had string lights on the porch. They had a view of water.

But within 48 hours, everything changed. The flood devastation due to the Edenville and Sanford dam failures left the Dinninger home—and hundreds of others—in disarray. The waterfront view became dry and brittle as bones.

Ernie felt overwhelmed by the damage. Joan felt frightened. With 46 years of marriage under their belt, the couple had seen a lot—but they had never experienced a 500-year flood. No one had.

“I wanted to walk away,” Joan said.

Until they heard a knock at the door.

Enter Steve Gerard and his crew of five guys from New Sharon Fire & Rescue based out of New Sharon, Iowa—nearly 575 miles away from where they now stood on Ernie’s porch.

“Steve knocked on our door and said, ‘We’re here to help. What can we do?’ It was like the angels had arrived,” Joan Dinninger said. “My husband almost cried.”

Steve leads a group of seven firefighters trained in disaster relief and recovery. The fire rescue squad takes vacation time from their day jobs to go across the nation to help those facing disaster.

“They’re unbelievable,” Ernie said. “The most professional people. It was so overwhelming. I wouldn’t have known who to get a hold of, but these guys did more in two and a half days than we could have done in a month. When they came to the door, I almost cried.”

New Sharon Fire & Rescue group is one of many National Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster (VOADs) who came to Midland County to assist with flood damage assessment and cleanup for free.

When the crews arrive in Michigan, United Way worked with the State of Michigan and the county’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) to get the VOAD groups the addresses of homes that needed help. United Way also collaborated with the EOC, Dow and the faith community to ensure each VOAD group had what they need.

“When I try to get set up when I come to an area, I need two things: a roof over my head, and a place to shower and clean up,” Steve said. “I don’t want to be part of the burden on these home-owners; I want to be a part of the solution. United Way and the Midland County community….bless them. They gave me a place to stay and lined up dinner for us every night. They get us set up so we can go out and do what we need to do.”

At Joan and Ernie’s house, Steve and his crew helped tear our insulation and remedy the demolished bathrooms, floor and walls.

“Thank you,” Ernie said. “Words can’t express how it happened. We know these people care, and when they came, it was unbelievable.”

Steve said he and his crew help communities because they know what it feels like to be at the mercy of disaster.

“It’s about paying ahead,” Steve said. “We’ve had tornadoes in Iowa and in our vicinity. We know what it’s like. So we like to see our work now as paying it forward.”

Residents across the county and region have benefited from numerous VOAD teams. These volunteers have traveled from across the country to lend helping hand and to help our community put the pieces back together.

If you have significant flood damage to your home and have yet to receive volunteer support or have not reported damage through the self-assessment, call the Long Term Disaster Recovery hotline at (989) 374-8000.