"Crunch time" is fast approaching for the long-term recovery committee working in the Enterprise, Ala., area, as a six-month federally funded rental assistance program nears an end for residents who survived a deadly tornado there.
Grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to uninsured residents to help them get into temporary housing and pay rent after the March 1 twister are scheduled to end in two months.
"People can apply for an extension, but there's no guarantee they will get it," said the Rev. Gary Daniel, pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Enterprise. "In the meantime, we still have many families still needing rebuilds. In another couple months, we'll be at real crunch time."
Helping affected residents has been the goal of the Recovery Organization of Coffee County, which was formed shortly after the tornado devastated the town, killing nine people including eight students at Enterprise High School. The storm caused some $307 million in damages in the town of 23,000 people. Rebuilding the local high school and an elementary school was expected to cost about $70 million, according to school officials.
The 30-member recovery committee is composed of volunteers from local churches, national recovery organizations and state-employed caseworkers. It was formed to assist with long-term recovery needs for those who suffered major damage but were either uninsured or underinsured.
A house owned by Daniel's church was donated to the committee for its headquarters, making it easier for survivors to apply for help and easier for workers to coordinate efforts.
"Our goal is to get people back in their homes, back in their neighborhoods and back into normal lives as quickly as possible," said Daniel, who serves as the committee's casework supervisor. "We were fortunate that many had the resources to help themselves. They either had insurance or were able to get assistance to rebuild, but there is another segment of our population that didn't.
"We have identified about 25 with major damage, but we think there are more out there," he said "And while 25 may sound like a small number, it's a lot for a community of this size, especially when you consider it's going to take about $40,000 in donations of cash or building materials to complete each house - and that doesn’t include the labor."
Residents whose homes were affected by the twister work with caseworkers on a one-on-one basis to assess the damages. Those who qualify for assistance are helped with filling out paperwork to apply for government assistance and immediate needs.
Caseworkers then start marshalling the cash or resources necessary to rebuild and enlist help from the pool of volunteers who will be needed to get the project done.
"And we're not talking about any 'Taj Mahal-type rebuilds,'" Daniel said. "We are doing the typical Habitat for Humanity structure - a 1,000- to 1,200-square-foot house with standard features. We want to build something safe, sound and sanitary."
Because not all the damage is physical - many people were traumatized by their losses - the committee also addresses the mental health component. It brings survivors into a weekly support group to "help them rediscover some normalcy in their lives," Daniel said.
He noted that even before the tornado sirens quit wailing, people were outside helping their neighbors. That assistance has continued over the past four months, Daniel said, to the point that when recovery personnel visit the town, all they can say is, "Wow."
"However, while the harvest is great, the laborers are few - or at least fewer than needed," he said. "We need more help and we need it quickly, but we've reached the point where we need skilled laborers - carpenters, roofers, sheetrock hangers, tile layers and the like."
Because Enterprise is the home to close to 60 churches representing nearly every denomination, Daniel said he was hopeful that financial aid and skilled volunteer teams will be coming from many of the denominations’ headquarters.
Members of the First Presbyterian Church in Enterprise were among those who have volunteered to take on a major rebuilding project.
The Rev. Todd Baucum, who pastors the church, said the congregation decided to focus on the needs of one family and, with assistance from Presbyterian Church U.S.A., has been busy rebuilding a home in an impoverished section of town.
"Both the husband and wife could be classified as 'working poor,'" Baucum said. "They lived in a home built in the 1920s - a very small 'shotgun-style' house with one bedroom and an inadequate bathroom, at best."
"At first, we thought we could repair the house but when we got into it, we found that it needed much more work, so we're doing pretty much a total rebuild from the foundation to the roof," he said. "When we're done, about 90 percent of the house will be totally new."
He said many members of his congregation spent their vacations working on the home. In addition, college groups were assigned to assist them with the work.
"But we're trying to get the word out that we still need a hand," he said. "We're only a few weeks from finishing but we need more laborers to get it done."
Daniel said he was optimistic about the future and the work being done by the recovery committee.
"The spirit of cooperation between the state, the agencies and the volunteer groups has been amazing," he said, adding that it has been the key to the committee's success.
"People who believe the government and the church shouldn't be working together should come here and see what that cooperation has enabled us to do," he said. "Neither one of us could have accomplished this task alone but by joining hands, we have helped so many and the faith-based groups have been given countless opportunities to show God's love.
"Of course, we who are involved in the day-to-day process of rebuilding sometimes get frustrated - the wheels don't seem to turn fast enough to suit us. However, when you look at how far we've come - instead of how far we still have to go - it is very impressive.
"I'm proud of the response by our faith-based community," he added. "I'm proud of the response by our community, period."
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