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Towns struggle to recover from twister

Homes, businesses in Cactus and Tulia, Texas, damaged and destroyed by tornado.

BY HEATHER MOYER | CACTUS, Texas | May 21, 2007

The communities of Cactus and Tulia are struggling to recover one month after a tornado left more than 300 homes and businesses in ruins, according to reports from the two Texas towns.

"Cactus is a Hispanic community that's very impoverished," said Harvey Howell, a Presbyterian Disaster Assistance national response team member who traveled to the region days after the April 21 tornado. "There is a desperate need for housing. Coupled with that, there is essentially no operational (chapter of Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster) and few community organizations to respond."

Tulia, a town of about 4,700 people located 114 miles south of Cactus in the Texas Panhandle, was coping with similar recovery issues, he said, but noted Cactus was faring much worse.

The tornado destroyed more than 160 homes, severely damaged 54 others and caused minor damage to another 184 - many of them mobile homes - in Moore County, where Cactus is located. The town has about 2,500 residents according to the 2000 census, but Howell said locals believe there are many more than that who are undocumented.

Tommy Brooks, emergency management coordinator for Moore County, said a lack of housing in the area was a problem before the tornado. Howell added that an incident prior to the tornado exacerbated the housing shortage.

"A refinery in nearby Dumas sustained a significant explosion two or three weeks prior to the tornado," he said. "The result of that is that every available house and apartment rental, RV park space and all the hotel rooms - of which there aren't many - are already occupied by refinery repair people."

In Tulia, the tornado wiped out almost the entire business district. Howell said residents in the Swisher County town were concerned that the community would die if the businesses were unable to rebuild.

"That small community is struggling with the emotional and spiritual losses of their livelihoods," he said. "They don't want it to be the demise of their community. A community already hanging on by the skin of its teeth is now worse off."

There is one Presbyterian church in Tulia that can help lead some response, but Howell said it will need help because its membership was not very large.

For Cactus, the recovery will be even harder with so few local organizations or faith groups.

Howell met with local and county leaders while in the towns in late April. His time was spent teaching the ins and outs of forming a long-term recovery committee and about the entire long-term recovery process. He said county and city leaders were committed to helping people rebuild, as was the local Presbytery. A few local civic organizations and churches were involved as well, including those in Dumas.

"We're bringing together city and faith community leaders to help build the community response," he said. "Clearly a lot needs to be done since they started from nothing. They need continued assistance for this organization. The physical need is housing, but obviously counseling is necessary, too, as the community comes to grips with this issue."

Brooks said the long-term recovery committee will soon be up and running to help families in Cactus. In the meantime, he said, the best way to help is to send money for those families who received little or no assistance from insurance or from the government. The First State Bank in Dumas manages the account for donations.

"We're concerned for the families who might fall through the cracks, that's why this committee is forming," he said.

Moore County received a federal disaster declaration and some of those funds were being sent to families, which was helping to boost the town's morale, Brooks said.

"There's some relief there and the outlook is starting to improve," he said "There's still a lot of frustration and a lot of uncertainty, too."

Howell said he planned to return to the area soon and has remained in contact with people there. He expressed concern that the towns weren't getting the attention they needed in the wake of other disasters.

"The tornado hit Eagle Pass (Texas) while I was there, which immediately got more attention," Howell said. "Then Greensburg (Kansas) obviously eclipsed all of these."

Brooks noted that Texas Panhandle communities are accustomed to going it alone since they usually take care of themselves.

"That's not to say we don't appreciate outside help. We greatly do," he said. "But our neighbors help our neighbors. It's always been that way and it will always be that way. There's no doubt in my mind that some way, somehow, these people will be taken care of."


Related Topics:

What's changed, what hasn't at FEMA

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