Interfaith to provide coordinated response

BY KD MCINTOSH | SOUTHERN MINNESOTA | May 18, 1998


SOUTHERN MINNESOTA (May 18, 1998) -- Within minutes of the March 29th tornadoes that blew apart homes,

businesses and personal dreams in a 60-mile rampage across southwestern

Minnesota, agencies and individuals mobilized to help victims clean up and

find temporary shelter.

Today, though, that flurry of initial activity has settled to a near-idle

-- some victims say they feel like they are putting one foot in front of

the other so they can walk in place. It's not that help isn't being

offered; it's that the kind of help needed depends on funds from insurance

companies and agencies to cover the next steps in rebuilding shattered

lives.

Recognizing this as a normal and expected stage in disaster recovery,

faith-based response organizations and area churches have responded by

developing a new interfaith relief agency to fill the gaps, expedite the

solutions to common problems and attempt to shorten the waiting.

Pastor Bob Maharry, has been elected president of the board of directors

for the Interfaith of Southern Minnesota (ISM).

The interfaith's purposes, he said, include: "To cover the seven counties

affected by the March tornadoes; for fundraising; for assessing unmet

needs; and then finding ways of meeting those needs and for coordinating

volunteers." Maharry is the pastor of the Union Presbyterian Church, St.

Peter, and is involved in Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA).

The board includes pastors from a variety of denominations, and represents

all seven counties.

"I anticipate this is the only interfaith (to be established) for these

particular tornadoes. Interfaith will be involved with Catholic Charities,

United Methodist Committee on Relief, Lutheran Disaster Response,

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, any corporate funding, and any other

agencies or faith-based services," he added.

Board Vice-President Elizabeth Yates, pastor of the First Lutheran Church

of St. Peter, said the coordinating of volunteers will be key in keeping

work focused on the greatest needs.

"If one group is particularly good at one thing, and another group is

particularly good at another ... we can dovetail them to work more

effectively to get things done." She explained how large groups showing up

hoping to pitch in somewhere can end up being ill used for their skills or

not used at all.

Yates, who was very close to a "teeny, tiny tornado by these standards,

years ago in Illinois," says she has been touched by the damages all across

southwestern Minnesota.

"In the towns, there is so much to do it's easy to forget the devastation

of the farms, the rural areas ... so many in that 50 to 60 mile path were

demolished." No accurate damage figures have yet been determined.

"We can help the farmers find the funds or volunteers or other help they

need to rebuild," Yates added.

Dick Graves agrees. Graves is the coordinator for Lutheran Disaster

Response in Southern Minnesota, and he will be working with the new

interfaith agency.

"Farmers who three weeks ago were saying, 'We lost our house and our barn

and this and that, but we're just thankful we didn't lose our lives,' are

now looking around at the damage that was really done ... and the tears

come now, because they realize, 'Sure, we're safe but the things that made

this home are all gone'."

Graves said it's important to remember that some who sincerely thought they

hadn't suffered much damage initially, later discovered how wrong they

were. "They found ground glass in their yards or pieces of debris in their

groves. There were a lot of groves damaged more than first thought. When

owners went out to mow yards or dig for planting, they saw how much work

they really had to do."

He told the story of one homeowner whose insurance had nearly signed off on

the house as being reparable when a second opinion was sought from a

carpenter. It turned out the house was knocked off its foundation and there

were cracks in structural beams. It will have to be torn down.

Graves said he sent out letters and questionnaires to determine just what

the rural areas did suffer in losses and how they can be helped. "The need

is far from over," he emphasized.

"We can't fill all the gaps, but some things we can do. It will depend on

what we learn in our assessment process and what assistance can be pulled

together through the interfaith," he said.

LDR's Disaster Relief Coordinator for Region 9, Harry Jenness, agrees that

assessments are key, even though they do take time. However, the assessment

process isn't what has slowed things down from the initial flurry.

"What we're finding is that insurance is covering a lot of damage but not a

lot of rebuilding," Jenness said. "As in Comfrey, houses were valued for

$40,000 to $50,000 each, but homeowners can't rebuild at that. Now those

homes cost $90-to-$100,000 to build.

"Some insurance polices have replacement costs, but so many do not. Then,

too, a lot of those people were on small or fixed incomes. And they need a

$10-to-$25,000 bump up to rebuild, either in grant or non-interest loans.

"I don't know how we can help with that, but we hope to help somehow," he

added.

For farmers, windbreaks or shelter belts are also often not covered by

insurance, and yet the number one rural requests are for trees for

replanting. "The second biggest area of requests -- there's a definite need

for assistance beyond loans and grants for the outbuildings."

Jenness said the obstacle for farmers is that their homes and garages are

covered for Small Business Administration (SBA) help, while their barns and

machine sheds are not. So farmers who have lost a lot of farm buildings are

left to borrow from banks or farm credit unions.

Livestock has been covered by insurance, even at replacement costs, but

"not the loss of income or the losses incurred when animals had to be sold

at a loss."

Jenness said faith-based relief agencies, and now the new interfaith

agency, will try to fill those gaps by referrals to a state agency funded

by the legislature. And if one can't be found, some other help will be

offered, even if in donated materials and volunteer time and skills.

Sadly, he said, only one-third of property owners have indicated they

applied to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) or SBA help.

"So, I've been... sending letters to make sure they apply before the May 30

deadline. Because if they ever want state funds, they have to apply first

to FEMA or SBA by that deadline. If they don't, they will miss out all the

way around."

However, that deadline does not mean help disappears.

"The interfaith is not going to be here a month or two and then gone. We

will be here at least a year, and we will try to really respond to what are

gaps (in the assistance available)," Yates said.

One of the main reasons IMS was formed, and one of its goals, will be to

find money in the corporate sector to cover holes not filled through other

means. Yates said many corporations and even smaller businesses want to

contribute to recovery work but balk at donating to a faith-based

organization or directly to a church, for fear that would show a bias

toward one denomination. An interfaith agency relieves them of that

quandary.

"It's not just money needs, it's what can't be quantified, like emotional

needs, too," she added.

She said people are wearing down. Some of the slowing down is just as much

emotional as it is waiting for financial help or bureaucracy.

"There will be shortness of patience, but given the losses and what they've

had to endure, they're doing very well," Yates added.

"Also, people here (in southwest Minnesota) are accustomed to taking care

of themselves...it's a hard thing for them to accept money and help,

because they're usually the ones who are giving.

"It's hard for them to even ask for help. But they, we, need to learn to

receive graciously from those we normally would be giving to ourselves.

It's a lesson that has to be learned," Yates said.

"We also need to learn to use the help we do get -- the interfaith agency

needs to learn how to use volunteers well, for instance. When someone sends

in 50 people to help, that can be a burden if we don't know where to put

them to work."

Trying to figure these things out slows down the process, too, she said.

"People need to be patient with us.

"But Interfaith can do the coordinating now, and that will help."

Posted May 18, 1998


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