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NJ group is family for flood survivors

BY SUSAN KIM | Bound Brook, NJ | February 22, 2001

When Tropical Storm Floyd sent the Raritan River roaring down Main Street in September 1999, Rafael Humeres (not his real

name) lost everything. The 63-year-old, a native of Mexico who settled in Bound Brook in 1990, went a year nearly without

assistance.

Then he found We Will Rebuild (WWR), a community-based nonprofit that helps people like Humeres find resources -- and

neighbors who care.

"We knew this man needed more than financial or material help," said Humberto Garcia, one of four caseworkers who works

with immigrant and undocumented citizens in the area. "He needed a family. We helped him find a decent place to live and

basic necessities. We also take him to his doctor's appointments, visit him, bring him dinner, and talk to him when he is sad --

things expected from true family."

Humeres calls WWR "my guardian angel. I always thought that American society was a cold environment with no sense of

family, but my family at We Will Rebuild has shown me I am capable of loving and being loved."

WWR has coordinated more than 2,000 hours in volunteer time spent helping people throughout the Raritan Valley area

rebuild their lives.

The organization is based in Bound Brook, NJ. Its mission is to help individuals, families, small businesses, and communities

rebuild after Tropical Storm Floyd caused widespread devastation throughout Somerset County and wider areas.

WWR is helping people navigate their recovery plans, strengthen planning and preparation for future disasters, and improve

their lives. Its services include disaster recovery, mitigation, disaster preparedness education, and client advocacy.

After the flood, some people received initial assistance through the Federal Individual Family Grant program, and the

National Flood Insurance program. But so many unmet needs remained that the state, in part because of WWR's advocacy,

implemented the New Jersey Disaster Recovery Program to supplement initial assistance funds. The state asked WWR to

help its clients document their needs and apply for those funds.

WWR finds itself working with a growing number of elderly clients and undocumented families.

WWR trained and coordinates a local group of Costa Rican immigrants who help with recovery efforts. "Cultural

understanding and pride in their community is a byproduct of this current generation of immigrants assisting an older

generation of European immigrants. This gift wasn't in our strategic plan!" said Peg Case, WWR director.

WWR tries to assure each client's well-being, added Garcia, by "opening our doors and hearts to lovable beings, making them

part of our familia."

Bound Brook's downtown area, which was devastated by the flood, has historically been a source of community identity and

a venue for employment. WWR has assisted 15 Bound Brook businesses -- among them Tony's Pizza, Café Maria, George's

Train Station Restaurant, The Bound Brook Hotel, and DiBetti Antiques -- with capital investment restoration projects related

to Floyd damages.

"In a small urban community, it makes sense to help small businesses get back into operation if the community is going to

recover fully after a disaster," said Case.

Some merchants moved elsewhere and traffic into the market area hasn't returned to pre-flood levels.

WWR also carefully weighs each individual's needs. The group provided sewing machines for six women in their 70s and 80s

who lost their machines in the flood. Each considered sewing a lifelong craft.

Mary Gallo, 89, has been sewing since the age of 12. "I had been ill and quit sewing," she said. "Over the years, sewing was my

pastime when I wasn't working as a secretary and administrator at Union Carbide. I made dolls, embroidered pillows, and

clothes. I was preparing to take up the hobby again when the flood destroyed my sewing machine."

WWR also launched a "mold remediation project" to safely eradicate this health hazard.

The plan calls for removal of the infected building materials and owner's personal property. Next the area is treated three

times with a killing agent. The final step, which mitigates future water damage, is sealing the area with waterproof latex paint.

"In recovery there are always priorities. These priorities change as time moves forward," said Case. "Mold remediation had to

come first."

Of the homes WWR found infested with mold, 75 percent were owned by elderly people. The remaining 25 percent either

had young children or people with pulmonary vulnerability.

Case lived in southern Louisiana when Hurricane Andrew struck in 1992. The Federal Emergency Management Agency

credits Case for developing the Terrebonne Readiness and Assistance Coalition (TRAC) in Houma, LA, a recognized model of

holistic disaster response that involved a broad-based coalition of community partners.

Case came from Louisiana to New Jersey to implement that very model. The Rev. Lou Kilgore, chair of WWR's board,

compared Case's service at WWR to "jumping on a runaway western stagecoach and bringing it under control."

WWR works with 14 other groups, including disaster relief, faith-based, fundraising, government, and service organizations.

WWR is a member of the community-wide Floyd Recovery Task Force.

"Amidst this disaster so many miracles enlighten us. Being a part of this global community uniting to heal is an honor. To see

this Spirit working throughout our communities is a gift," said Case.


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