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Interfaith helps LA survivors

Clean up from Isidore and Lili is expected to continue through this year.


"This is all they know, and they're not going to leave it."

—Velma Watson

Even in the most disaster-prone areas, a disaster recovery coalition can take time to come together. Sometimes it takes a major disaster to provide the impetus.

Consider Terrebonne Parish in the bayous of southeastern Louisiana. Tens of thousands of people live in areas below sea level which are easily flooded by storm surges and which are highly susceptible to hurricanes. Coping with flood damage is a way of life.

It wasn't, however, until Hurricane Andrew hit more than 10 years ago that a permanent recovery coalition was formed. Based in Houma, La., the interfaith group called Terrebonne Readiness and Assistance Coalition, or TRAC, was not created directly in response to Andrew, said Velma Watson, director of TRAC. Rather, TRAC was created to improve the way volunteer groups responded to the hurricane.

The damage caused by Andrew was so severe and widespread that it prompted an outpouring of money and volunteers, Watson recalled. Receiving the help was wonderful, she said, but there was no one group to coordinate the work of all the volunteers. As a result, a lot of time and money were wasted, she said.

"There was a lot of duplication," Watson noted.

In the decade since Andrew, TRAC has worked to prevent such unnecessary duplication. Every week, local clergy, emergency responders and leaders of volunteer organizations meet to discuss the hundreds of cases with which they are dealing. Lafourche Parish, as well as portions of St. Mary's and Jefferson parishes, are also covered by TRAC.

TRAC is currently working with people affected by Hurricane Lili and Tropical Storm Isidore, which hit within a week of each other last fall.

Watson said TRAC has received extensive help the last few months and its caseload has dropped from the thousands to about 300 open cases.

The assistance ranged from $1.2 million in donated goods from Churches of Christ Disaster Relief in Tennessee to a donated warehouse where TRAC could store the items, which included refrigerators, washers, dryers and beds. The local sheriff's department provided prisoner labor to unload trucks that were arriving on the average of one or two per day. In addition, Presbyterian and Methodist groups have provided volunteer labor and Church World Service has given nearly $20,000 in grants.

Catholic Services has also helped, Watson said. Nearly 80 percent of the population of Terrebonne Parish is Catholic.

Jennifer Gaudet, a caseworker for Catholic Services, said her organization has also purchased appliances for the storm victims. Besides mold damage in flooded homes, damaged appliances are one of the biggest problems that has to be addressed, Gaudet said.

"You don't always know that your appliances are messed up right away," she said, noting that it can sometimes take months for an electrical appliance that appears to be undamaged by floodwaters to short out.

Another task is helping bayou residents elevate their homes, Watson said.

For a home that has incurred damage equal to at least 50 percent of its value, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provides repair assistance. It also requires that the home be elevated from 8 to 13 feet above ground level.

Home elevation is an issue that TRAC also strongly encourages, Watson said.

"Of course, we encourage them to elevate if they're going to live down there," she said.

Watson said many of the residents are poor and simply cannot afford to elevate their homes. To raise a home built on a cement slab can cost $75,000 to $80,000, she estimated, while a stick-built home can cost between $20,000 and $30,000.

A large portion of the residents make their living off the bayou by fishing and crabbing, Watson said.

"This is all they know, and they're not going to leave it," she said. "It's like going to a different world-everything is just so laid back and slow moving."

Even if a house is elevated on stilts, Watson still recommends residents evacuate during a hurricane, since there's no guarantee the stilts will be enough to escape a powerful storm surge.

"We do our best to get everyone in those bayous to evacuate" during a severe storm, she said.

Watson said that based on past recovery efforts, she expected the cleanup from Isidore and Lili to continue through this year.

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