Depot damage challenges work

Helping people recover is hard enough work. Itís even harder when your own base of operations gets hit.

BY TRAVIS DUNN | EUNICE, La. | November 24, 2002

"Here the damage is so widespread. We're working with a much larger disaster area."

—Herman Hochstetler

Helping people recover from disasters is hard enough work. But it's even harder when your own base of operations gets hit.

That's the reason why Herman Hochstetler and his wife, Shirley, of Goshen, Ind., were all alone here Saturday.

Hochstetler, a volunteer for Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS), is in charge of the relief effort here in Louisiana following a bevy of fall disasters: Tropical Storm Isidore, Hurricane Lili and freak tornadoes.

Normally, Hochstetler would already have a team working with him here. But that changed Nov. 10, when MDS's regional headquarters in Columbus, Miss., was struck by a tornado. The main office building was totally destroyed. Tools were lost and damaged. Two huge bay doors just disappeared.

"We never found [the doors]," Hochstetler said. "We never even found a part of them."

MDS wasn't the only disaster relief group in Columbus to bear the brunt of the tornado: The Salvation Army was also hit.

Until the regional headquarters is repaired, Hochstetler is redirecting most volunteers to Columbus. In the meantime, he's set up here off Route 190, living in his own travel trailer and working out of a warehouse donated by Eunice Manor, a nearby senior citizen's home.

Hochstetler does have a few small crews coming in to help him. Monday, he expects a team from Houston, and more in the next few weeks.

There is plenty of work to do in Louisiana, he said, on a scale that unique in his experience as a volunteer.

Most disasters with which he has worked have been confined to a radius of 10 to 15 miles. The disaster areas here, he said, extend in huge swaths of hundreds of miles.

"Here the damage is so widespread," he said, "we're working with a much larger disaster area."

Hochstetler has got a lot of ground to cover. Five parishes (or counties) fall within his purview: Jefferson Davis, Lafayette, St. Landry, Evangeline and Acadiana.

Out of such an enormous area, MDS will focus on the most vulnerable people, including those who are uninsured, elderly or disabled.

"We strictly help out those who really need help and can't get it anywhere else," said Hochstetler.

Hochstetler is working closely with Buren "Sparky" Sparks, a volunteer with the American Baptist Churches USA through the West Virginia Baptist Convention.

Sparks has been working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and volunteer groups since early October. Now based at his home in West Virginia, Sparks gets reports from FEMA about families in need in Louisiana. Sparks studies the reports, figures out which volunteer groups could be of the most help, then sends off a fax to the appropriate group.

Hochstetler has so far received more than 45 of Spark's referrals, and he has checked out more than 30.

The biggest concern is housing, he said, since he has seen some families still living in homes damaged so badly that "they're not fit to be living in."

One such home, just outside of Mamou, has a wall patched together with palettes and scrap wood. That home, Hochstetler said, may even have to be demolished and rebuilt, since a series of major repairs may actually be more costly then building a new home from scratch.

But until he can get more volunteers with construction experience, Hochstetler is worried about chainsaws. Cutting up trees is something he can do by himself. And there are plenty of felled trees all over Louisiana.

Some of these trees are too big for the 12- and 16-inch blades he is currently using. He needs something bigger-36 inches, he figures, will do just fine.

Hochstetler estimates the operation here will last about six months, assuming that the headquarters in Columbus gets fixed up soon.

In the meantime, he's waiting to fill that empty warehouse.

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