Houston clergy urged to help

BY PJ HELLER | HOUSTON, TX | January 11, 2002

"We need to get the word out to every congregation."

—Bishop Joseph Fiorenza

Members of the faith-

based community were exhorted Thursday to come together

to assist thousands of residents still suffering from

Tropical Storm Allison which hit the area more than

seven months ago.

At a morning "Convocation of Clergy" organized by the

One Houston United campaign of the United Way of the

Texas Gulf Coast, churches and congregations were urged

to support recovery efforts by donating money, materials

and providing volunteers.

"We need to get the word out to every congregation,"

said Bishop Joseph Fiorenza of the Galveston-Houston

Catholic Diocese. "Although we did a lot in the very

beginning, the job is not complete. We have to do more

because our fellow citizens are still suffering."

Bishop Alfred L. Norris of the Texas Conference of the

United Methodist Church sounded a similar theme.

He noted that the initial response to the June 8

flooding was "a model of compassion, concern, mercy and


"But the reality is people are still hurting," Norris

said. "More than six months later some people are not

back in their homes. There are still people living with

mold and mildew. People need safe, sturdy secure homes

again. People are in need of emotional and spiritual

stability again. People are in need of seeing a smiling

happy face again when they look in their mirrors.

Recovery is not over. It is not yet a fact."

Among those hardest hit and still waiting for assistance

are the elderly and families with children under 18

years of age, all of whom survive on less than $14,000 a

year, officials said.

"These families were struggling before the floods

struck," said Jacqueline S. Martin, president of United

Way here. "Many are still out of their homes or are

living in partially repaired conditions. These

households have little or no means of replacing even

basic items like winter clothing and blankets."

More than 119,000 residents have applied for assistance

through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA),

according to officials there. As of mid-December, $1.05

billion in federal and state disaster assistance has

been provided to affected families and businesses,

officials said.

The United Way, which has taken a leadership role in

bringing together corporations, foundations,

individuals, and the faith-based community, said it

hopes to raise $4 million to aid residents affected by

the storm. Martin said 100 percent of the money would be

distributed through nonprofit agencies to affected


Allison, which moved ashore and then stalled for several

hours over Texas, dumped more than 3 feet of rain on the

area. The storm left 22 people dead, destroyed 3,600

homes and damaged another 48,000. Officials said it was

the worst natural disaster in Houston's history.

Now, seven months after the storm, some neighborhoods

are yet in disrepair with furniture, mattresses,

drywall, and other household items still piled in front

of homes. Repairs have moved slowly in many areas,

particularly where residents had no insurance to cover

their losses. Trailers provided by FEMA still sit in

front of many houses.

Dale Peercy, a construction coordinator with Lutheran

Disaster Response, estimated that repairs and rebuilding

could take up to three years. He said he already has a

list of about 1,500 homes awaiting repairs by volunteers

and another 400 homes still to be surveyed by


Officials, trying to keep a positive spin on recovery

efforts, did not mention the seemingly slow pace of the

recovery. In interviews, they acknowledged a variety of

factors, chief among them the focus on the Sept. 11

terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

"We've said one of the things you do to help a nation in

crisis is to build strong communities," said Linda

O'Black of United Way. "We've got to start here."

"I think 9-11 just devastated everyone so much that it

was hard to keep focused on anything," added Cherri

Baer, a Church World Service disaster resource

consultant. "Now that it's a new year, people are

enthused, they are back from the holidays and I think

they're ready to tackle this."

Baer, who has been in Houston for 10 days, said the

faith-based community would be discussing the formation

of an interfaith committee at a meeting scheduled for

Jan. 17. She said the Convocation of Clergy could be a

catalyst to forming the interfaith.

"I think there were people who attended this who did not

realize how much need there still is," she said. "As in

every disaster, people feel it's been six or seven

months and everybody is doing fine, when they are not.

Far from it."

Pastor Chris Beam of Hope Community Church was one of

the attendees who said his eyes were opened at the

meeting to the needs in his own area. He said he planned

to contact other faith-based leaders to see how they

might be able to work together.

Even though the extent of the damage from Allison

continued to grab attention, Rabbi Roy Walter of

Congregation Emanu El suggested that people not dwell on

the statistics from the storm.

"We can count the number of homes affected, the number

of dollars of damage that have added up and we can count

the number of people who have been affected," he said.

"But we can miss the most important thing. And that's

the human suffering.

"How do we measure the pain of losing your home?" he

asked. "How do we measure the pain of not being able to

go to sleep in your own bed at night, the pain of losing

your teddy bear? That can't be measured with all the

statistics and sophisticated computers that we have.

"But we as human beings can recognize this human

suffering and as children of God respond to that

suffering by alleviating it," Walter told the crowd of

more than 100 people who gathered at the downtown Hyatt

Regency hotel. "Your being here this morning is a sign

that you care. But we all know that caring isn't enough.

You have to leave here and do something about what you


Among the things he suggested was for faith leaders to

urge their members to make a pledge while watching a

live television broadcast of the One Houston United

telethon scheduled Jan. 26 at Enron Field.

The show is being broadcast by five Houston TV stations.

Walter also urged his colleagues to "lead by example."

"Don't ask the members of your congregations to make a

pledge to One Houston United without first making your

own donation," he said.

"There are enough empty words in the world. We don't

need to add to them."

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