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'Invisible' LA needs found

People’s lives here are by no means back to normal, according to area church leaders and FEMA officials.

BY TRAVIS DUNN | LAFAYETTE, La. | November 27, 2002

"We need to know what kind of base we have in order to go to the next step in organizing."

—Lura Cayton

If much of the highly visible damage from hurricane season has disappeared here, people's lives are by no means back to normal, according to area church leaders.

That's why religious representatives and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials are organizing a long-term disaster recovery effort.

That might prove more difficult than usual, said the Rev. Lura Cayton, a Church World Service disaster response and recovery liaison, whose job is to bring together church leaders after disaster strikes.

First, the combined damage caused by this season's storms was extensive and widespread. Second, the Lafayette area does not have an interfaith group or ministerial association, and this means that local church leaders will have to get connected and organized before they can launch an effective long-term recovery.

"We need to know what kind of base we have in order to go to the next step in organizing," Cayton said. "This might be an opportunity for churches to come together in a way they have not before."

The recovery work, while demanding, is absolutely necessary, said Sarah Schoeffler, a member of the disaster task force of the Louisiana Conference of United Methodists.

"It's important, and it's time-consuming, but who best to do it but the churches?" she said. "Let's get this ministerial alliance going. It's almost sinful to say that we haven't got one in this community."

Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Catholics, Episcopalians and Disciples of Christ were represented at meeting, and other groups are likely to join them.

Giving sound advice to disaster survivors is one important task, Cayton said, that churches can accomplish.

Disaster survivors' "cognitive processes don't work very well," she said, and can cause some people to make bad decisions-like misspending FEMA grant money, or succumbing to the empty promises of con artists posing as building contractors.

Many people, particularly those in isolated rural communities, don't know whether they're eligible for assistance or how to apply.

"What we find," she said, "is that most people don't understand how the process works."

FEMA representative Cathy McCue said church volunteers need to encourage disaster survivors to call the FEMA hotline even if they don't think they will qualify for federal money.

"Someone needs to be encouraging people to call," she said. "Because without them calling, they will never get any assistance."

In order to know what people need, Schoeffler said, church volunteers need to get out in the field and knock on people's doors.

"We don't know who all out there needs us," she said. That's why she is taking a group to the Abbeville area, where they will comb house-to-house asking homeowners exactly what their needs are.

"We're going to do a door-to-door blitz," she said.

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