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Volunteers help MD town

BY LARA BRICKER | LA PLATA, MD | June 27, 2002

"There were so many spontaneous volunteers, they were swarming everywhere."

—Liz Monahan-Gibson

A driver down a main road of La Plata this week might not suspect that this middle class suburb is still in the midst of a national disaster recovery effort, after a massive tornado hit two months ago.

"When people drive down the middle of the road, it looks clean," said Kathie Evans, the coordinator of volunteers and voluntary agencies for Charles County (MD) emergency management. "When you go in to it, there's a lot more debris. There's thousands and thousands and thousands of stumps. There's some farms that still need a lot of work. One farm has six grain sheds still hanging in the trees."

The F-5 tornado that tore through Charles and Calvert counties April 28 left three people dead, nearly 100 people injured, destroyed more than 860 homes, and at least 194 businesses.

Disaster relief workers and volunteers agree that the La Plata disaster is not a typical recovery effort in that there is not the need for housing or volunteers to rebuild homes, as over 90 percent of the residents affected had insurance which covered damage to their homes.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) closed down its temporary office in La Plata after only a month, said Russ Edmonston, a spokesperson for FEMA.

"Basically, the insurance coverage is so great we haven't had a lot of needs to be fulfilled," Edmonston said. "There's been no needs for (FEMA) trailers, apparently many people do have access to housing in the area."

The portion of the recovery not covered by homeowners insurance is the outside damage such as downed trees and stump removal, Evans said. And while residents had insurance, they cannot afford the cost of removing the stumps. One man received an estimate of $55,000 to clean up his yard, she said.

Volunteer efforts are now focusing on the stump removal and removing debris from yards and homes. The Baltimore/Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church just rented two stump grinders to help with the clean up, she said. In the initial days after the twister, volunteers were not hard to find.

"There were so many spontaneous volunteers, they were swarming everywhere," said Liz Monahan-Gibson, the voluntary agency liaison for Region 3 of FEMA.

Those initial helpers have since dissipated and Evans is now faced with the task of reactivating volunteers to assist with the stump removal. The problem is that volunteers want to help very low income and uninsured victims and most of the resident in La Plata had insurance.

"These people need their help just as much," Evans stressed.

Monahan-Gibson said the Charles County Emergency Management office and local volunteer groups were so well-organized that there were very few unmet needs that required FEMA to step in.

"The county emergency management folks, were extremely active and proactive," Monahan-Smith said. "They included a lot of the community's agencies in the effort which really helped."

Voluntary agencies from both La Plata and the Baltimore region have remained active, including the American Red Cross, Lutheran Disaster Response of Washington, DC, Catholic Charities as well as local Kiwanis, Rotary, and youth groups, Evans said.

Church World Service (CWS) dispatched a disaster response and recovery liaison to help coordinate a long-term interfaith response. Denominational response groups such as Week of Compassion, a giving program administered by the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) have been financially supporting CWS's efforts.

Two months after the twister touched down, the close community relationships are what is helping residents keep going in the daunting recovery process.

"The community around here and the churches are really good," said Evans.

The Christian Family Baptist Church, including Pastor James Powell Sr., have been feeding volunteers since the recovery work started. The United Methodist Church brought in Dr. George Everly Jr., last week for a training program for local pastors, geared toward dealing with the aftermath of a disaster. Everly included suggestions on caring for the caretakers and the role of preaching in the recovery process.

Volunteers are being brought in to help elderly residents, who have been spending a lot of time on their own.

"There's a lot of elderly who are very self-sufficient out there cleaning up sticks on their own," Evans said, adding the work is exhausting. "Even the younger people are getting tired."

Most of the elderly who are being helped by volunteers still pitch in with the work, as the alternatives are grim.

"Every time they look out their window it's another reminder, it's just too overwhelming," Evans said. "You're at a point of where do you go next, there's just so much to do, but the make-up of the community is very self-sufficient and they try to keep going."

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