Hammers replace parties on TX coast

More than 5,000 college students swell ranks of volunteers rebuilding Texas Gulf coast communities.

BY STEPHANIE BACKUS | GALVESTON | March 19, 2009


Youth help Mennonite Disaster Service volunteers repair homes in Anahuac, north of Galveston, damaged by Hurricane Ike.
Credit: Mennonite Disaster Service

Spring Break in Galveston this year is marked by hammers and power saws instead of parties as college students join other volunteers in rebuilding this Gulf Coast city.

Five thousand students from all over the country are expected to help clean up from Hurricane Ike.

"They will be here giving their time, efforts and money toward helping us to recover (from Hurricane Ike)," said Eddie Hilliard, a member of United Methodist Texas Disaster Response. "They'll be painting, putting roofs on, dune building and spending time with younger people."

According to Hilliard, organizations are planning activities for the students while the young adults help with hurricane recovery. He also stressed the importance of the youth's impact on the community.

"It brings light into the community to see all those young people in an area that is depressed. As we come into spring, seeing all these people seems to be lifting all of us," Hilliard said. "After the hurricane, we had massive layoffs, so in addition to the store, people lost their homes as well as their livelihood. There is depression and loneliness and these people feel like they're in such a hole."

Hilliard is working with 29 faith-based organizations who have come together in the Galveston area to pool resources and help one another rebuild. The ecumenical effort has helped, according to Hilliard.

"As a result of that, we've cleaned up literally thousands of homes and have about a dozen that we've really been able to move back into their homes since Jan. 1," he said.

"When (Ike) finally came ashore, it diminished in wind strength," said Harvey Howell, member of the Presbyterian Disaster Assistant response team. "We had flooding from the storm surge. The wind was not that strong, but there was nowhere for water to go but on shore."

Houses flooded. Homes on the coast were demolished.

"We had entire communities scraped off the map. Bridge City is gone," Howell said. "Nevertheless, Texas was responding and from what I saw, it was truly amazing that the government got in place and did so many things."

Long-term recovery is just beginning, six months after the storm, but funding has been scarce for many organizations aiding in rebuilding.

"Is it the economy? Is it because people have donation fatigue and we've already been through several?" asked Howell. "I don't have the answer."

The week after Ike would bring one of the biggest stock market falls since the Great Depression. The nation's eyes were on one of the most historic presidential elections in U.S. history. News about Ike quickly halted, impacted by the ever-changing 24-hour news cycle.

"We didn't see some of the headlines we saw with Katrina," Howell said. "There's a major event there that didn't get coverage.

"Texas was well oiled in contrast to the negative press from Katrina. The state was able to respond so well. I don't know that that's it, but you have to wonder."

Nikkie Beneke, president of the Texas Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters, agreed that media attention hurt donations.

"The crisis on Wall Street seemed to replace (Ike) immediately in the news," she said. "People sometimes don't remember as we go from disaster to disaster if no one is reminding you that it is still there. People think no news means it is all taken care of.

"When I talk to people and meet with people they truly think it's over and it's not. There was a large number of people impacted by Hurricane Ike."

Other organizations agreed that funding has been a problem in Hurricane Ike recovery. Beneke said the economy and issues with non-profit funding play a role in the problem.

"While we have agencies and VOAD that have done a wonderful job in bringing resources and people into the area, some agencies aren't getting the resources they need -- donations they need to do the work this time," she said.

Scott Sundberg, of Mennonite Disaster Services, said the lack of funding has been disappointing, but said a lot of people have been volunteering to help.

"What's interesting is that we have an over-abundance of long-term volunteers. There is certainly no lack of volunteers, but a lack of funding and attention," he said.

According to Hilliard, many people want to help in the Galveston area.

"What's been a surprise to me is the number of people who have been willing to come down here and volunteer for an extended period of time. I know a young (clergy) couple who resigned their charge and moved down here. They said they're going to be here for at least 12 months. They've committed their lives to helping people recover," Hilliard said.

Rebuilding in response to the 2008 hurricanes, is beginning to take shape all along the Gulf Coast: from Texas to Louisiana, according to Sundberg.

"We have a crew working on a house in Cameron, La. We're just finishing up the siding and starting to hang drywall. The homeowner is there every day, and the crew said the homeowner's eyes cloud up with tears while looking at the progress," he said.

The Presbyterian Response Team also have two volunteer villages ready to accept volunteers in Texas.

"The first volunteer village went up in February and is housed at the First Presbyterian Church in Texas City. They are receiving volunteers from the San Antonio area," Howell said. "Things are happening, but it's four or five months into the thing."

Volunteers are getting people into homes in the Galveston Area, too, according to Hilliard.

"Two weeks ago, I got a call from a lady who we helped get back into her home. She asked me to stop by the house," he said. "Her 7-year-old son was having a birthday party and asked all of his friends to get Home Depot gift cards instead of birthday presents, because we helped his family and he wanted to help someone else's family. They boght a big piece of sheet rock and all the kids drew pictures on it. We took the cards and the sheet rock to another family who needed the help."


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