Ark agency helps tornado survivors one-by-one

BY SUSAN KIM | LITTLE ROCK, AK | February 12, 1999


As Susie Wardlaw drove her kids to a basketball game on Saturday, she passed by homes that were

demolished by the recent tornadoes.

"Here were people whose lives had been disrupted in the worst way, and here I was doing my routine Saturday activities. Right then I realized

how much I'd been blessed," she said.

Wardlaw decided to volunteer for the Interfaith Disaster Recovery Team (IDRT) a couple days a week. On her first day, she is already

answering phones, scheduling meetings, and setting up IDRT's new office in the Watershed Community Center in downtown Little Rock.

"I feel like it's the least I can do. I mean, helping people recover from this disaster is a community responsibility," she said.

Next to her is Jeannette Barnes, IDRT's volunteer coordinator, whose job is to recruit local volunteers like Wardlaw, as well as teams from

across the country who will help rebuild the 1,708 homes destroyed or damaged when 38 tornadoes touched down in Arkansas on Jan. 21.

Barnes, herself a volunteer, predicts she'll work 40-hour weeks at IDRT, at least in the beginning. Right now her cellular phone won't stop

ringing: it's a woman from St. James United Methodist Church who wants too donate bottled water and juices, then another donor asking to

whom he should make checks payable, then a group that wants to help with clean-up, then the Mennonite Disaster Services reporting their team

has already arrived and has already arranged a place to stay.

Then it's a woman who's willing to cook and serve meals. "Do you know of a specific area in need of that?" asks Barnes. The woman doesn't.

"Then right now I'd volunteer for something else. People seem to be okay with food right now."

It's been several weeks since the storm, and the need for food is indeed dissipating. As people find temporary housing -- many with friends or

relatives -- shelters are able to close and stop serving meals. Now survivors' needs are changing. They will need help with clean-up, advice on

registering with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), a supply building materials and an army skilled labor to rebuild their

homes, daycare for their children so parents have time to meet with insurance agents and contractors, counseling on how to deal with anger and

depression.

"I don't hesitate to steer people into giving what's needed and away from what's not," said Barnes. "I don't want to hurt people's feelings, but I

find they're happier to contribute something they know is really needed."

As Barnes and Wardlaw answer call after call, IDRT Executive Director Buzz Yarborough, an Episcopal priest, meets with tornado survivors

who have stopped by IDRT's office for help.

Fred Atkins has brought his 74-year-old father, John, because they have questions about insurance and FEMA. The elder Atkin's home, which

he bought 29 years ago, was heavily damaged by the tornadoes. He has two mortgages and $30,000 worth of insurance. Insurance adjusters

have estimated it will take $60,000 to rebuild the home, so they've written it off as a total loss. But Atkins will continue to live there, and he

hopes to rebuild. His question is how.

Yarborough gives him the same advice he will give many people in the coming weeks: "Don't use your insurance check to pay off the mortgage.

Instead, work with the Small Business Administration to get a low-interest loan, and use that to pay off the mortgage."

And check back with IDRT in a couple of weeks, Yarborough adds. "We're trying to get donations of building materials and skilled volunteers

who can help you rebuild your home."

When rebuilding begins in earnest, Yarborough would like IDRT's mission to include protecting survivors from fraud. "Sometimes someone

will offer to remove a large tree, for instance, and the homeowner thinks they're doing it for free, then they receive a bill in the mail. Or a

contractor might gouge someone on costs for rebuilding, or a manufacturer may unfairly raise prices on building materials," he said.

If IDRT receives enough in-kind donations from building supply manufacturers -- plywood, 2-by-4s, nails, sheetrock, and the like -- and

enough volunteerism from people who care, then homeowners will be able to offset the high costs of rebuilding.

Until then, many will live in temporary housing, with friends or relatives, or in apartments or hotels as long as they can afford it. Some will stay

in homes with damaged roofs, bowed walls, cracked foundations or other heavy, even dangerous, damage.

"For some people, that's part of their grieving process -- they stay in their homes in denial," said Yarborough.

IDRT has an empty warehouse -- more than 200,000 square feet -- in downtown Little Rock ready and waiting to store building materials. In

the meantime, Yarborough and his dedicated volunteers will keep helping survivors, one by one. "We're in this for the long haul," he said.

"We'll be urging people to contact FEMA, then try to take care of their needs that the government can't meet."

IDRT plans to work with other agencies to provide special services such as professional counseling. "We might not be able to provide that

service right here in this office, but we have access to excellent mental health services here in Little Rock. We tell people where that's available,

and even arrange transportation for them," he said.


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