Long-term disaster response set in KS

BY SUSAN KIM | WICHITA | May 3, 1999


WICHITA (May 13,1999) -- Higher-than-expected statewide needs, coupled

with differing urban and rural needs, have led disaster response leaders to

form two interfaith response committees to help coordinate recovery.

While the committees -- one based in Wichita, the other in outlying

Haysville -- will coordinate closely with one another, each will focus on

its local area with the hopes of matching response more closely to people's

needs.

After a series of massive tornadoes last week, emergency response is still

occurring in both areas, with American Red Cross service centers remaining

open, the Salvation Army storing donations in a newly acquired 50,000-foot

downtown warehouse, and the Baptist Men still feeding hundreds of families.

While several faith-based organizations are assisting with initial response

-- Mennonite Disaster Response, the United Methodist Committee on Relief,

and Lutheran Social Services are among those helping with clean-up -- many

interfaith leaders took time today for organizational meetings in what the

Rev. Tim Leaf, pastor at the Resurrection Lutheran Church in Haysville

called "the necessary bureaucracy of disaster response."

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials, clergy, and city

community leaders met with representatives from the Red Cross, Salvation

Army, Church World Service, and other faith-based organizations to iron out

practicalities that make response more effective.

Ensuring correct information is disseminated to survivors regarding FEMA

assistance and insurance claims; coordinating volunteer teams to prevent an

overlap of work; quelling an overwhelming influx of clothing donations; and

handling stress among caregivers were among the issues discussed.

"Some people may think it's impractical right now to take time to sit down

and discuss these things," said Leaf. "But these conversations are

important in the long run. A response committee has to focus and fill a

niche."

The Rev. Orel Newbrey, pastor at the Haysville Faith Christian Church,

agreed that taking time to put the structure in place, even when pastors

would rather be 'in the field' helping people, is crucial. "You have to

have some format to follow," he said. "Otherwise everybody does something

and nobody does anything."

Both groups also decided to send a clear message to good-hearted donors of

material goods: no more clothes. Staci Warner from the Wichita Salvation

Army said that a 50,000-foot warehouse downtown is nearly full.

"We are still accepting other donations, but we don't need any more

clothes," she said. "Right now I estimate it will take our volunteers four

months to sort through the clothes we've already received. And, since the

majority of people displaced by the tornado are still in temporary housing,

they're not taking clothes home with them."

Helping volunteers understand what's needed is another goal, said Kathy

Kruger Noble, the communications coordinator for the Kansas West United

Methodist conference whose own Wichita home was damaged. More than 2,000

volunteers descended into the area over the weekend to assist with cleanup.

"I was at a meeting where someone asked, 'do you need someone to come fix

your roof?' The disaster response workers said 'No, not yet,' because the

insurance process was not complete. If your home is fixed before being

assessed by FEMA or your insurance representative, you may not be able to

receive assistance," she said.

While some volunteers are needed to help with cleanup, the majority will be

needed this summer, when the rebuild will begin in earnest. With more than

1,100 homes destroyed, and about 2,500 with major damage, recovery could

take years. "I've been telling people that if they want to take a mission

trip to rebuild homes here, plan it for the summer. This disaster will be

out of the media spotlight, and many people will have forgotten the need,

but we'll still be hard at work," she said.

Making sure both survivors and volunteers receive correct information is a

challenge, said Rob Reschke, public assistance officer for FEMA in Kansas.

"For instance, in a small town -- Haysville has about 9,000 people --

everybody seems to know everybody. If it's the right information, it

spreads quickly. But if it's the wrong information, it spreads just as

quickly."

While interfaith meetings help organize efforts, they also give response

leaders a chance to swap stories and offer support to one another. Many

people in Wichita and Haysville want others to know they're stories -- and

that they're determined to recover.

Even seasoned response leaders talk about balancing their own emotional

reaction with a practical outlook. "I did the funeral for a 44-year-old

woman and her one-month-old grandson," said Leaf. "It's been interesting to

watch myself operate and to listen to myself. The first few days I was out

in the field, roaming the streets and answering immediate needs. Now, on

one hand I need to keep moving; on the other hand -- I'm tired!"

Leaf, who sheltered some parishioners at his house, ended his day today by

planting a tree in his yard. "Martin Luther said, 'If the world were to end

tomorrow, I'd plant a tree today.' Well, I'm still planning and planting

life in the midst of disaster."

Leaf's sentiment is echoed in small and large ways throughout the state.

Even the answering machine at West Haysville Baptist Church has something

positive to say: "Although the town was hit by a tornado, and the church

suffered some damage, we're back in business."

Posted May 13, 1999


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