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Survivor advocacy is every day event

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

SEGUIN, Tex. (Dec. 2, 1998) -- The Rev. Bill Shupe happens to be at the

Ramirez Donation Center when Norma Clark walks in. She's looking for a

dresser. She has been living out of boxes since her home was severely

damaged by floods that struck 32 counties in Texas nearly two months ago.

"Norma, did you get your SBA (Small Business Administration) packet yet?"

Shupe asks.

"No," she says.

"Has a FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) inspector visited you

yet?"

"No."

"Well, I'll take care of it this afternoon at the interfaith meeting."

"I also need a twin bed," says Norma. "Can I still go to the Red Cross?"

"Yes, but the service center has moved." Shupe gives her directions, then

tells her about a town meeting that evening at which residents will discuss

the city's response to the floods.

Every day since the floods struck, Shupe, chair of the Guadelupe Valley

Ministerial Alliance, has lived this scenario over and over. He has helped

people understand FEMA paperwork, locate donation centers, access medical

services and counseling, and locate volunteer help. He has "mudded-out" homes,

cleared debris, and moved furniture. He publishes "Noah's Notes," a biweekly

newsletter that tells about interfaith response to the flood.

"Norma had six feet of mud in her house -- and she had the most beautiful

home," said Shupe. "We had to throw out 90 percent of what she owned. Her

husband was in the military so they had stuff from all over the world. And she

still has the second story of someone else's home sitting in her driveway."

"Part of a minister's responsibility in a disaster situation is to advocate

for survivors. We can present their case and light a fire."

Shupe does "light that fire" at the afternoon's ministerial alliance -- by

simply telling FEMA Representative Harry Noftsker about Norma's case.

Noftsker, who has inspected hundreds of homes, has attended these meetings

from the start in order to keep open communication between faith-based

responders and FEMA. More than 2,700 families in Guadalupe County, where

Seguin is located, have filed for FEMA assistance. Recovery will take more

than two years.

"I'll take care of that right away," Noftsker says, and asks for any other

specific cases that have "fallen through the cracks."

Many Seguin families who lost homes were affluent members of their

community.

"They've never gone to a government agency for help," says Shupe. "Their work

ethic and lifestyle doesn't lend itself to that. So people are doubled up in

homes or living in RVs because they won't ask FEMA for temporary living

trailers or other assistance. It takes at least 30 days of lead time to set up

temporary trailers because you need to plan utilities and road access. So our

new watchword is "Ask. If you don't ask, you don't get."

About 15 different representatives from area churches of all faiths attend

weekly interfaith meetings. By this time, they're used to the logistics of

disaster response: coordinating volunteers, dealing with an overflow of

clothing donations, and soliciting goods from local and national businesses.

The alliance already has a bank account established to manage monetary

donations. The next step is to see if individual churches will help fund a

caseworker for the interfaith group.

"We want to be good stewards of the gifts we receive," says Carl McCauley,

representing the First Presbyterian Church.

The alliance meets in the Guadalupe Valley Hospital, which has also been an

active participant in the interfaith response. "This community has kept such a

cooperative spirit," says Hospital Administrator Don L. Richey. "One big issue

was tetanus injections for both survivors and volunteers. We gave more than

4,000 tetanus shots in less than a week!"

Today's meeting is highlighted by a visit from Stuart Rhodes, Donovan

Penner,

and Gideon Oberholtzer, who have traveled from Manitoba, Pa., as a Mennonite

Disaster Response team. They've come equipped with their own tools, their own

RV, and financial support from their church that will allow them to stay three

to six months.

"We just need to learn the local building codes and requirements," says

Rhodes. "We're working on cleanup now, but we'll be ready to start rebuild

efforts whenever you say the word."

Bob Barnes, a Church World Service Disaster Relief Facilitator, tells

Rhodes they'll be sure to match his team with priority needs.

Barnes stresses the importance of organizing a systematic approach early on,

even though urgent needs seem to take precedence over scheduling and

paperwork. "Everything changes on a minute-to-minute basis in terms of which

meetings are on and which aren't," he says.

At the close of the meeting, the group's thoughts turn to another disaster:

the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch in Central America. "Does anyone have an

update?" asks Shupe.

Charles Youngson from St. Andrews Episcopalian Church does. "We've sent

teams

to the Honduras, and we've started a Honduras Fund as well."

He passes around information on where to send contributions, and, with a

prayer to bring order out of chaos, the meeting adjourns.

"Today we've come away not only with support for our own community but

with an

opportunity to help overseas," says Shupe.

Posted Dec. 2, 1998


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