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Texas volunteers building trust

BY SUSAN KIM | DEL RIO, TEXAS | October 16, 1998

DEL RIO, TEXAS (Oct. 16, 1998) -- When Tony De Weerd traveled here from

Ontario, Canada last month to volunteer in the flood recovery for two

weeks, he thought he knew what to expect. After retiring five years ago, he

has helped communities with disaster recovery at least twice a year. He

rebuilt homes after Hurricane Andrew and "mudded out" after flooding in

Albany, GA.

But Del Rio was different. "For one thing, this was the most powerful

flood I've ever seen," he said. "In Albany, the waters rose and ran through

the town, but Del Rio looked like a tidal wave went through it."

The second difference is the fact that most people in this tight-knit

community of 34,000 speak only Spanish. "We had a bilingual pastor with us,

and so he translated whatever we couldn't understand," said Tony.

The third difference, Tony said, is the challenge of building trust in a

community that desperately needs help but doesn't necessarily want to ask.

"In Del Rio, it took us a week to break the ice before we were accepted,"

he said.

"At first people weren't coming to us. They were also very reluctant to

have us come into their homes. Then pastors began to introduce us from the

pulpit. We were announced on the Spanish radio station, and a story ran in

the local bilingual newspaper. We also wore bright green shirts with logos,

which made us visible in the community."

The people of Del Rio began to approach Tony and the rest of his 7-man

crew from the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC). "Together,

we built up a sense of trust. It turned out they just weren't used to

receiving 'no-strings-attached' help."

Trusting anyone -- or anything -- in Del Rio is difficult after August

23-24 floods, a result of Tropical Storm Charley, caused $34.5 million in

damages in the already economically troubled community and killed nine

residents, with six more still missing and presumed dead.

Just after the flood, as shocked families mourned loved ones, looters

ransacked many homes. And, since many had never experienced a disaster,

flood recovery efforts were slow getting started. Coordinating state and

local agencies, interfaith groups, and flood survivors was initially a

daunting task that sometimes disillusioned residents and volunteers alike.

"We spent our first day shoveling mud and clearing debris from houses

near the river, then we were told those houses would be demolished," said

Tony. "That was rather disheartening. Then we coordinated more closely with

city officials, who told us where to work."

After that, Tony and his crew worked on more salvageable homes. "We

removed ruined drywall, and we disinfected woodwork that had been polluted

by standing water."

Finding space for volunteers is difficult in Del Rio, but Tony's crew

found a solution by bunking in a 37-foot trailer and eating their meals at

Grace Lutheran Church. "The trailer worked out just fine. It was fortunate

nobody snored because we were packed in there pretty close together."

Del Rio needs people like Tony. Residents are still facing undrinkable

water, condemned homes, and a lack of building materials and skilled

volunteers.

Now, volunteers who travel to Del Rio can expect better coordination

between work teams, city officials, and churches. An interfaith disaster

response agency called Del Rio Recovers is uniting the many organizations

that want to help, including the Convoy of Hope, HonorBound, Church of

Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, Mennonite Disaster Services,

Lutheran Disaster Response, Christian Reformed World Relief Committee,

Church World Services, United Methodist Committee on Relief, United

Methodist Men, Catholic Social Services, Lion's Club, Rotary Club, Red

Cross, Salvation Army, state and city agencies, and local churches.

Volunteers can also expect a new sense of trust built by their

predecessors.

"At first you can't imagine why someone from, say, North

Dakota would travel to Del Rio to help," said Linda Henderson, manager of

the Del Rio Chamber of Commerce. "But then people realize they really need

each other. The majority of people with damaged homes are uninsured."

"Now I know the Del Rio community has a new sense of trust in outsiders.

I also think we will react in a positive way if some other community

suffers a disaster. We will be among the first to help because we know what

it's like."

For Del Rio residents, simply getting a drink of water is hard. Since

water is still undrinkable, more than 100,000 gallons of bottled water are

shipped to the area daily and stored in tankers at grocery stores and other

distribution areas.

"We still refill our tanker truck twice a day. That's 5,000 gallons a

day," said Andy Perales, service manager at HEB Grocery Store, one of many

water distribution points. "Before we were shipping it from San Antonio,

but now we're found a safe water spot about 10 miles away."

Posted Oct. 16, 1998


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