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Tragedy lingers in Texas city

BY PJ HELLER | HOUSTON | March 22, 2002


"It's horrible. It's just as if the flood happened three days ago."

—Ruama Camp, Disaster Recovery Interfaith


For several thousand elderly low-income residents here, Tropical Storm Allison might just as well have happened a few days ago -- not nearly one year ago.

"People are still living in homes that are uninhabitable," said Ruama Camp, director of case management for the Disaster Recovery Interfaith. "It's horrible. It's just as if the flood happened three days ago.

"We're still finding elderly people just sitting in their houses with wet sheetrock and wet carpet," she said. "You can drive down the street and you'll still see the debris."

In some cases, people have gone through the winter living in homes that have been gutted but with no further work done. One woman has been cooking on a hotplate since the storm last June.

Those involved in the ongoing recovery efforts say the number of cases has continued to grow -- 3,000 people were still awaiting assistance as of March - and that money, materials and manpower will were in short supply.

"It's way more than we have the ability to respond to now," admitted Linda Stewart, construction director for the interfaith group that was created earlier this year.

Those affected are the least able to help themselves, according to officials. More than half of those seeking assistance receive less than $12,000 a year in Social Security, Camp said, and some were living on substantially less.

"If you're living off $400 a month, I'm sorry but you just don't have any extra money. You don't even attempt repairs," she said.

Camp estimated that 75 percent of the cases where people applied for assistance were due to the fact that they had been duped out of their money by "contractors" who they paid for repairs but that were never completed.

Charles Gaby, chairman of the interfaith, also attributed the growing caseload to the fact that residents who applied for buyouts were being turned down.

"Each time they do another round of buyouts and people are left out of that we get those referrals," he said.

In other cases, he said people who received assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) -- assistance which he described as "somewhat like a sedative" - were seeing those funds running out. Hundreds of families were still living in FEMA-provided travel trailers but the deadline for those to be returned was looming, officials said.

More than 119,000 people applied to FEMA for assistance. Agency officials said Allison was biggest disaster to hit a single city and a single county in the continental United States in terms of the number of eligible people seeking housing assistance.

Even so, recovery officials say that not many people -- inside of Houston and out -- were aware of the gravity of the situation here today.

"If you walk down the street in Houston, it would be a rare oddity for anyone in Houston to recognize that this was such a large disaster," Gaby said. "However, if you talk to social service agencies here, there's a huge escalation in demand for assistance."

Camp said that Allison recovery efforts have been overshadowed by other events, notably the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Then after the winter holidays, there was the Enron scandal and then the Andrea Yates murder trial that grabbed national headlines.

"Our greatest challenge is we have to recreate the disaster as far as the media is concerned because there have been too many things going on overshadowing the victims and survivors of Allison," she said.

Stewart said the number of people seeking assistance has grown steadily from 400 cases in October to 1,600 at the end of January to 3,000 today. More than 1,400 people called a special hot-line in January seeking assistance after One Houston United hosted a telethon to raise funds for recovery efforts.

"We are just scrambling," Stewart said. "It's as though the 1,200 cases in mid-January was the hill and the 3,000 (today) is a mountain. The need is incredible.

"The mountain could still grow larger," she warned.

Caseworkers are still conducting mass interviews at community centers and other venues. Those sessions were expected to continue for another month or two, Gaby said.

The campaign by One Houston United, a effort established by the United Way of the Texas Gulf Coast, raised $3.1 million, officials announced. Of that amount, $1.5 million was raised by the Jan. 26 telethon with the remainder coming from area congregations, foundations, corporations and individuals. More than $230,000 was raised through "Second Collections" from area congregations and religious organizations, officials said.

Funds will be distributed to eight area non-profit agencies helping people affected by the floods, One Houston United said.

Stewart said that the amount of money raised was a "drop in the bucket" compared to what was needed. She said it would cost an average of $2,500 in building materials alone to repair each of the 3,000 homes. That figure did not include overhead for the staff to coordinate volunteers working on the projects.

"We are undersized to respond to the disaster and we're undersized because of a lack of funds," she said. "Funding has been the constraint all along."

Gaby said that he expected the interfaith to receive about $850,000 from One Houston United. The majority of those funds would go to fund construction projects, he said.

Dale Pearcy, one of three construction coordinators working in Houston, said his biggest need was for skilled labor. He also said additional construction coordinators would help speed the rebuilding process. To add more construction coordinators, however, would require additional funds.

"What we need is experienced people; people to hang drywall, finish people, roofers . . ." he said.

He said he was booked for June and July with volunteer teams scheduled to come into the area.

Stewart said officials were establishing a "volunteer village" with utility hookups and three full-size mobile homes. A fourth mobile unit was planned if funding becomes available.

She said she was also hoping area faith-based groups would agree to take on one or more homes as a building project. The interfaith group is made up a variety of denominations, including mainline Christian groups, Mormon, Jewish and Islamic.

Despite the seemingly slow pace of recovery efforts, Stewart still had a positive outlook. She said the efforts of volunteers were helping to transform people's lives in Houston.

"That's very powerful," she said.

"No matter how big the mountain gets you have to remember that it's a family by family that gets blessed and it makes a difference in their lives," she said. "The challenge is we could do a whole lot more with more."


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