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TX struggles with flood recovery

BY RACHEL CLARK | ABILENE, TX | September 19, 2002

"The people that I talk to, sometimes they'll just break down and cry over the phone when they're talking to me."

—Dorothy Thompson

Flooding in central Texas this July left many residents homeless. Despite the tireless efforts of relief groups, many flood survivors are still working to piece together their lives.

"How soon someone will return to their house depends on the extent of the damage," said Dorothy Thompson, administrative coordinator for the Taylor-Jones County Disaster Recovery Initiative in Abilene. "I spoke with one man who said it looks like February before he'll be able to return."

According to Church World Service (CWS), nearly 60,000 people in 32 counties were impacted by the flooding.

"People mostly need help rebuilding," said Lesli Remaly, CWS disaster response and recovery liaison. "There are a significant number of trailers that were damaged or destroyed. Some folks need a new place to live, others need those trailers to be rebuilt."

FEMA, the American Red Cross, The Salvation Army, United Way, and many other groups have responded to the floods by providing victims with household items, temporary housing, food, clothes and financial aid.

"The United Church of Christ was very instrumental in getting new appliances to anybody who needed them," said Remaly.

Peter Olsen is pastor of the San Antonio Bethany Congregational Church of Christ, as well as chairperson of the Advisory Board of the Comal County Salvation Army.

"Our area made a major response in terms of funding through the United Church of Christ churches in the Seguin area," Olsen said. "We put into effect a disaster relief effort there, we did nothing new or different than we normally do. We opened a disaster area, coordinated with city officials and other relief agencies, gave out thousands of dollars of direct vouchers to people, prepared disaster kits as a first response for people to begin cleaning their homes, collected food for anyone who wanted it and opened a response center to use as a donations center."

All of the efforts have helped flood survivors, but there is still much to do, Thompson said. Contractors have long waiting lists -- even for estimates. And some residents beginning repairs are only just starting to notice damage that was hidden before.

"People clean out, wash and dry refrigerators and plug them back in," Thompson said. "They run for three days and then they don't ... we're hearing a lot of stories of damages that are just now becoming evident."

In addition to church, community group, local and federal relief, Thompson said several businesses and schools have helped those affected by flooding. Both Target and FedEx set aside "a day of caring," where employees spent a workday cleaning houses, moving furniture, washing windows and lending a hand where help is needed.

"There are three colleges here in town, and now that the school term has started again, we're beginning to get calls from those students," Thompson said.

The area Mental Health Retardation Unit is also helping. They've trained a team of crisis counselors to walk door-to-door to talk to people and assess their needs. The counselors gauge stress levels and emotional needs, as well as look for physical needs.

"The people that I talk to, sometimes they'll just break down and cry over the phone when they're talking to me," Thompson said. "One woman had to have shoulder surgery right after the flood and she started crying and said 'I guess it's just too much.' If anything else comes along it kind of tips the scales."

Hit especially hard are senior citizens, Thompson said. Most reject help from the government and are determined to make repairs by themselves.

"They're very independent," she said. "Part of that is the west Texas spirit ... some is mistrust of the government and some of that is that their homes are paid for and the thought of having a lien on their homes is just the most horrible thing they can think of."

While the return to normalcy is slow for some, Thompson hopes volunteers continue to respond.

"The people who were not directly affected -- they tend to have forgotten about it and a lot of the flood victims are saying other people just don't understand. They think we're back to normal and we're just in the middle of it."

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