Anniversary sees renewal of Arkansas recovery

BY SUSAN KIM | LITTLE ROCK, AK | January 21, 2000


When tornado warnings were issued for Little Rock this month, many residents relived the terror

they felt exactly a year ago, when 38 tornadoes swept across Arkansas, damaging more than 2,600 homes.

The Rev. Hezekiah Stewart drove to the Watershed Community Center fearing the New Year would bring new devastation. "I came out to

the office in case anything did go down, we'd be ready to move into action."

Fortunately, this time around, Arkansas escaped a twister. Residents breathed a collective sigh of relief. Then, they went back to work on the

frustratingly slow recovery from last year's tornadoes -- and the even slower recovery from 1997 tornadoes that also destroyed scores of

homes in the College Station area of Little Rock.

Delays, fragmenting response groups, anger, and sheer need have slowed and marred this city's disaster recovery.

It took a full year after tornadoes struck in 1997 to rebuild just the first home, said Ronald Quillin, assistant comptroller for Pulaski County.

After the January 1999 tornadoes, even with more seasoned disaster responders, it still took seven months, he added.

There are still $87,000 in federal funds that are unexpended from the 1997 disaster -- three years and three months after it occurred. And, of

the 500 homes in Pulaski County that need to be rebuilt from the Jan. 1999 tornadoes, only 15 are complete.

But "currently things are improving," said Quillin.

And new partnerships between the city and faith-based response groups may prove him right. Nearly every major denomination is involved

with volunteer rebuild efforts, financial contributions, casework, or in-kind donations management.

The hub of the re-ignited response is the Adventist Community Services (ACS) Arkansas Multi-agency Resource Center, which moved into

a two-story building furnished by the city.

More than 1,100 volunteers have been coordinated through the center, contributing more than 33,000 hours of work toward the recovery,

reported Nelson Mears, director of operations.

The center can house and feed volunteers. Accommodations include beds, showers, a kitchen with a stocked pantry, and a dining room. The

Arkansas Rice Depot has donated most of the food for volunteers.

More than $2 million worth of in-kind donations, including relief supplies and building materials, have been made to the center. More than

2,000 people have been helped by the center. They received crisis counseling, food, personal care items, blankets, furniture, appliances,

building materials, and volunteer labor.

The center's goal is, first, to meet the immediate needs of disaster-impacted households. Second, the center aims to coordinate improved

housing throughout the disaster area suitable for households of diverse economic means. The center also aims to provide expanded

neighborhood and business opportunities for disaster-impacted residents.

Indescriminately, the tornado struck people of many different income levels. Destruction was rampant in Little Rock's low-income

communities, in affluent historic districts, in small outlying farming towns, and among businesses.

Residents of Little Rock's Quapaw historic district nearly saw their neighborhood lose its national historic designation, until damage

assessments showed that enough of the 100-year-old homes survived to retain the status. But many Quapaw homeowners were

underinsured, surprising residents and disaster response leaders alike. Historic homeowners found that their insurance often covers

rebuilding a home but not necessarily restoring it.

Of 444 historic properties in the Quapaw Quarter, 19 were destroyed, and 13 of them were National Register Properties.

Lutheran Disaster Response and the United Methodist Committee on Relief are among the faith-based group responding in tandem with

ACS.

The Christian Reformed World Relief Committee also has a major effort currently underway, with volunteers teams of 20-24 people staying

for three weeks each to help reconstruct homes.

"Our plans are to have teams there for at least three months and very likely six months," said Ellie Wykstra, project coordinator.

Mennonite Disaster Services has also been actively rebuilding homes since the 1997 tornadoes. Habitat for Humanity has also rebuilt

homes and is planning to complete more.

"The volunteer participation is accelerating," reported Ed Matthews, chair of the Interfaith Disaster Recovery Team, Inc.

But "many more volunteers, financial, and in-kind contributions are needed to meet the needs of these homeowners of tornado-related

damage who are either uninsured or drastically under-insured," he added. "These neighbors so devastated by the tornado of a year ago have

had enough delays."

The City of Little Rock has indicated its commitment to support the ACS center as a permanent facility that will be prepared to respond to

future disasters.

"We're really trying hard to work on our preparedness, and to have a network that's together so it's not that long a delay," said Quillin.

Lessons learned are on the minds of many in Arkansas on the year anniversary of the last major disaster. "It has been an eye-opening

experience," said Sherry Adcock, who chaired the Unmet Needs Committee of Independence County, "and I hope it never happens again in

my lifetime."

Some survivors in Arkansas have paused to think of other disaster survivors. Stewart traveled to North Carolina in November to offer

guidance to disaster response specialists there. "That's the worst devastation I've ever seen," he said. "Before the month is over, I may go

back out there."


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