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New response groups unsung TX helpers

BY SUSAN KIM | AUSTIN, Tex. | December 2, 1998

AUSTIN, Tex. (Dec. 2, 1998) -- In his kitchen, Fritz Parker, a volunteer

with the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), keeps a metal filing

cabinet full of Texas disaster information. This fall the files are bursting

at the seams.

Hundreds of newspaper articles, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)

reports, church newsletters, and emails have been produced in the aftermath

of October floods that caused 32 Texas counties to be declared disaster zones.

Amid piles of paper, Parker locates a "statistical wrap-up" -- but notes

that

this won't be the last report as new damages are still being found more than

six weeks after the disaster.

Though the tallies of loss do not approach the staggering ones of central

America in the wake of Hurricane Mitch, Texans still are dealing with the pain

of 31 deaths, 2,733 structures destroyed, 9,935 structures damaged, $620.4

million in residential losses, $71.9 million in business losses, and $239.9

million in public property losses.

The overall numbers make the press much more often than the stories of

the interfaith disaster response

organizations that are springing up all over the state -- New Braunfels

Recovers, DeWitt County Cares, the Noah Project in Wharton, the Guadelupe

Valley Ministerial Association, and Goliad Remembers.

Parker's role is to help communities form these interfaiths. "It's very

different for each community," he said. "Some are much more evolved at this

point than others, though they're are getting there. If there was already a

group in place -- such as a ministerial alliance or a group formed in response

to a previous flood -- it's easier to organize. For example, Wimberly had some

minor flooding last year, and the response committee stayed loosely together,

so it was matter of four phone calls to bring it back."

Parker also said that interfaiths should seek the support of FEMA and of

state

and local officials. "In Lockhart, for example, the interfaith got a lot of

support from the county, and that helped organize it faster."

The new interfaith groups all have the same goal: to organize long-term

response that will help meet people's needs when government assistance cannot.

In Seguin, the Rev. Bill Shupe, who leads the Guadelupe Valley Ministerial

Association, said that the interfaith group's job also is to let people

know what

services are available. "When people stop by the donation center, we ask if

they've talked to FEMA, and if they know where the Red Cross service center

is."

With FEMA urging people rebuilding in flooded areas to elevate their homes,

raise utility connections and electrical outlets, and use tile rather than

carpet, interfaith organizations often communicate this kind of information to

volunteers that travel from across the nation.

"It's important that volunteers have a clear idea of local codes and

regulations," said Marian MacNeill, a volunteer with Presbyterian Disaster

Assistance who helps communities organize interfaith groups.

Volunteer teams are usually assigned to rebuilding homes, but in Texas some

may help rebuild riverside recreational facilities that bring in millions of

dollars in tourist revenues for the state each year. When the floods caused

$2.2 million in damage to the New Braunfels sewage treatment plant, a broken

16-inch sewage main had been spewing two million gallons a day of raw sewage

into the Guadulupe River, where many recreational outfits are located. Now

that the water is again safe for contact, volunteers are needed to help remove

debris so the rivers are safe for rafters and tubers by Memorial Day, when

peak tourist season starts.

Volunteers will also be needed to clear debris from homes, since most state

and county officials are ending debris cleanup by Thanksgiving because of high

equipment costs and staff overtime.

"I walked down one street in San Marcos, and everything these people

owned had

been washed out into the street," said Parker.

Even as celebrities such as country music star Willie Nelson and St. Louis

Cardinals outfielder Ron Gant donate to Texas flood relief, the unsung

"neighbor-helping-neighbor" is just as crucial, said the Rev. Chuck DeHaven,

pastor at St. Paul's Lutheran Church in New Braunfels. "You can simply offer

to restore someone's damaged photo albums, or offer to store their china for

safekeeping in your house while they're cleaning up," he said. "Little

gestures can offer an incredible boost."

Most interfaiths organizations plan to stay in place for the next two

years at least.

They'll have a lasting impact on flood recovery -- and on relationships between

churches as well. When one local church holds a potluck dinner or chili cook-

off that benefits flood recovery, members from churches throughout the

community attend. "You go to their dinners and they go to yours," said Shupe.

"It's a way for churches to support each other."

Posted Dec. 2, 1998


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