When catastrophe engulfed the Waynesville area in August, Waynesville Mayor Luge Hardman stepped up and did what she could to inform and comfort her citizens who were suffering from the natural disaster.
Slight panic settled in on Waynesville Mayor Luge Hardman as torrential rain relentlessly poured outside her West Waynesville home and lightning fractured the sky in the early morning hours of Aug. 6. Unable to sleep, she logged onto her Facebook page and wrote a simple but powerful message, "Small town mayor worries. I am fearful for what tomorrow will hold for Waynesville."
A few hours later, Police Chief Bob Carter knocked on her door.
"We're in trouble," Carter warned.
Hardman had just started her first term as Waynesville Mayor in 2012. She had virtually no experience with natural disasters.
"I remember thinking, 'Oh my gosh what do I do next?'" Hardman said.
But away she went to West Side Baptist Church — the heart of the disaster.
Even though the sky was still dark, Hardman could see, hear, and even smell devastation in every direction. The rain at that point had still not let up. She could feel the cold water at both her feet and from above. The thick smell of propane from spilled tanks filled the summer air. She could hear citizens of her own town screaming for help.
"Everywhere you looked there was a fireman or a policeman," she said. "I was shocked at how many there were at that point. It was organized chaos."
Within just a few hours, West Side Baptist Church had turned from a quaint community church to a disaster relief shelter. Hardman looked around and saw people – many of whom she knew personally, visibly shaken from the storm's wrath. Hardman has lived in the community since the 1970s and was a teacher for Waynesville High School for 30 years. The victims who surrounded her were not just citizens of the town she's in charge of, they were her former students, neighbors, and friends. Hardman choked up as she saw dozens of victims clinching to their animals or one another with nowhere to go.
"I was petrified to tell you the truth," she said. "We had people in trees, screaming for help. We could hear them."
Heroes All Around
But in the midst of all the chaos, it wasn't difficult for Hardman to see the good in her community.
"My hero from that morning was Sheriff Long," she said. "We could not have had a better leader from that morning than Sheriff Long. He was calm, cool, in-charge, and had a plan."
Sheriff Long had just been elected into office in January. Hardman said he did a fantastic job with coordinating rescues with several different agencies.
Hardman said there were "too many heroes to name" that day, but a few community leaders stuck out in her mind.
"I was very impressed with [Pulaski County presiding commissioner] Gene Newkwirk and [Pulaski County clerk] Brent Basset," she said. "They never left the scene. They had been there an hour before I got there. They were out there offering help. That isn't in their job description."
Hardman said the flood exposed how great the community leaders of Pulaski County are.
"I think this county is very lucky to have as many progressive leaders as we have. We have leaders who are interested in the people and making things happen."
Hardman said that she was more than proud of her city workers, who worked extra hours and stepped up in a time of crisis.
"There were a lot of heroes that day — a lot of first responders were out there risking their lives — but my real heroes were my city workers," she said "Everyone was doing what they were supposed to be doing to take care of our people. Nobody complained. From our secretaries down to our water department and our parks department. The City responded beautifully."
Hardman said she was also overwhelmed by the amount of everyday citizens who wanted to help.
"The compassion of people really struck me," she said. "I was constantly getting phone calls from people asking what they could do to help.
Hardman said that leaders from surrounding areas of Fort Leonard Wood, St. Robert, Crocker, Lebanon, and Springfield offered all kinds of help.
Finding Her Role
Hardman didn't know how to respond properly to a catastrophe of such volume, but she knew her role as mayor was to be the spokesman of the city and so she did what she did best: talk.
"I had no plans how I was going to act or respond," Hardman said. "I remember [city administrator] Bruce [Harrill] asking me that morning, 'Do you want to be the spokesman?' He kind of knew what was going to happen. And I said, 'yeah, that's kind of my job.' And I became the spokesman."
So Luge took a deep breath and spoke to news crews from across the nation.
"[American activist] Maggie Kuhn once said, 'Speak the truth even though your voice shakes.' I can tell you my voice shook a lot that week. Even right now, I get emotional about it. I had a lot of friends who lost everything. My friends in Hull Valley — their lives were turned upside down."
Hardman's voice shook through the airwaves of NPR, CBS, NBC, ABC, and the Weather Channel, informing both her citizens and the nation of the catastrophe Waynesville was experiencing, the help available, and the need for volunteers.
"They say it's not going to be a good day if "60 Minutes" is at your door. It's not a good day when The Weather Channel is in your town," Hardman said.
Hardman said she thought it was important to keep the public informed during a time of crisis.
The 'City Consoler'
Just a week after the disastrous flood shook the Pulaski County area, a teary-eyed Luge Hardman stood before the grief-stricken Waynesville-St. Robert Chamber of Commerce and delivered a once-in-a life-time speech.
"I have been the spokesman for the city and my citizens. But I was not and am not the fireman who rescued the lady from the tree. I am not the highway patrolman who jumped in a boat, risking his own life in raging waters to save other people. I am not the policeman who carried our lost child. I am not the city worker who climbed a utility pole in raging water to catch a live electric wire. I am not the EMT who carried the elderly man to safety. And I'm not the fireman who discovered our lost mother. I am not the Red Cross worker who hugged scared and frightened people at the shelter. I am not the funeral director who has comforted the Lee family. And I am not the citizen who has lost everything and really has no idea what to do next.
But I am the leader of Waynesville and I will work hard to coordinate our efforts. I will be the comforter. I'm going to hug you, I will reassure you, I will be your friend when you need someone to talk to and share your concerns. And I am the face of the City of Waynesville and I'm the face of the city that will bounce back and be even better. To my community, I thank you for everything you have done for us. And in this optimistic spirit I say, 'Let's soldier on.'"
Even though the streets are no longer soaked, the parks are no longer submerged, and Mitchell Creek is almost back to being the dried up drainage ditch it's known to be, Hardman wants to stress that the damage from the disaster is far from over.
"Even though it has looked like we have recovered, and we have a few new streets in and we're repairing our infrastructure, there is still a lot of people who are devastated from this flood," she said. "People who have had no insurance — their life savings are now gone."
Hardman said another big task she had as Mayor was finding a place for donations to go that would stay local and go to the flood victims.
Hardman said that Pulaski County COAD (Community Organizations Active in Disaster) and Good Samaritan of the Ozarks stepped up to become the two central hubs for donation acceptance and volunteer coordination.
"COAD is focused on getting people back into their homes and fixing their homes," she said. "Good Samaritan is focused on giving them appliances, furniture. It's great how they play off each other."
The city has also hired an employee specifically to help with flood victims. About a week after the flood, the city hired a team of hydrologists to analyze the flood and look for ways to make the city safer and more flood-proof, especially the Mitchell Creek area.
"We went from rescue, to recover, and now we're rebuilding," Hardman said.