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Sleepless in Houston

BY SUSAN KIM | HOUSTON | April 8, 2002

"I myself was awake most of the night, going through my clients in my head, thinking, who do I need to worry about, and who's going to be alright."

—Jan Swecker, Associated Catholic Charities

Last night Houston couldn't sleep. Maybe it was because, when storm clouds rolled in, the sky looked like it did some 10 months

ago, when Tropical Storm Allison ruined tens of

thousands of homes.

The latest series of storms -- which moved through

coastal Texas Sunday night and Monday -- caused flooding

in low-lying coastal areas. A trailer park in Lewisville

was evacuated when flash flooding loomed. Water

evacuations were reported in Johnson and Tarrant

counties, too.

But no casualties were reported and, according to the

Texas Division of Emergency Management, scattered minor

damage is likely the only outcome.

It's the psychological damage that's keeping Houston

awake at night. "This morning it was so dark it looked

like it did that day in June," said Jan Swecker of

Associated Catholic Charities. Swecker works with other

faith-based and community-based groups that together

form the Allison Recovery Initiative.

She said she stayed awake last night thinking about the

people she's helping, many of whom lost everything

during the costliest tropical storm this country has

ever seen.

"I have people say to me that every time it rains they

get a knot in their stomach," she said. "I myself was

awake most of the night, going through my clients in my

head, thinking, who do I need to worry about, and who's

going to be alright."

If it bothers Swecker, she's sure it bothers thousands

of others in Houston -- especially children. "The kids

have a hard time ignoring that."

These days there seem to be both dark skies and sunny

moments for the thousands of people still recovering

from Tropical Storm Allison.

A benefit event called "One Houston United" raised more

than $3 million earmarked for flood recovery. It was a

much-needed financial boost for a recovery effort that

was getting no press and no national support.

But when responding agencies put together an honest

assessment of their needs, the total came to $8 million.

That's what's needed to help the people -- most of them

residents of northeastern Houston -- who bore the brunt

of Tropical Storm Allison.

For several thousand elderly, low-income residents in

Houston, Tropical Storm Allison might just as well have

happened a few days ago -- not nearly one year ago.

"People are still living in homes that are

uninhabitable," said Ruama Camp, director of case

management for the Disaster Recovery Interfaith. "It's

horrible. It's just as if the flood happened three days


"We're still finding elderly people just sitting in

their houses with wet sheet rock and wet carpet," she

said. "You can drive down the street and you'll still

see the debris."

In some cases, people have gone through the winter

living in homes that have been gutted but with no

further work done. One woman has been cooking on a

hotplate since the storm last June.

Those involved in the ongoing recovery efforts say the

number of cases has continued to grow -- 3,000 people

were still awaiting assistance as of March -- and that

money, materials, and manpower will were in short supply.

"It's way more than we have the ability to respond to

now," admitted

Linda Stewart, construction director for the interfaith

group that was created earlier this year.

Those affected are the least able to help themselves,

according to officials. More than half those seeking

assistance receive less than $12,000 a year in Social

Security, Camp said, and some were living on

substantially less.

"If you're living off $400 a month, I'm sorry but you

just don't have

any extra money. You don't even attempt repairs," she


Houston still needs help "in all forms," added Swecker.

"We still have a need for volunteer work teams. We need

experienced people who can serve as consultants. We need

building materials and money to buy building materials."

This week's storms caused street flooding on the

southwestern side of Houston, and a mudslide on a

freeway there snarled traffic when a construction dirt

heap collapsed. The water receded quickly once the rain


But Allison's damage isn't receding very fast. The One

Houston United benefit prompted more than 7,700 people

to call and pledge financial support, said Ronnie

Hagerty, director of communications for United Way and

also one of the coordinators of the Allison Recovery


The event also prompted another 1,400 calls from people

who still needed help, said Hagerty. The Allison

Recovery Initiative set up special interview sessions in

hard hit communities, recruited volunteers to help, and

called every single person back.

Houston is still looking at an 18 to 24-month

recovery, said Hagerty.

And when new storms roll through, it's not just a

nuisance. It's downright scary. "I think it terrifies

all of us. When you hear thunder and lightning we all

have accelerated anxiety. And I'm not an anxious person."

Last night Hagerty moved her photo albums to a

higher place in her house because, time and time again,

she has listened to people grieving about losing

irreplaceable items to floodwaters.

"I looked around my house and said, 'what needs to go

up?' "

Hagerty said she sees "a very heightened awareness"

throughout her city. "I can't even imagine how those

whose homes are in disarray feel when something like

this hits. I can't even imagine the impact on the


-- PJ Heller also contributed to this story.

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