Needs grow in AL

Flood-related needs in Jefferson County, Ala., could have easily been overlooked.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | July 28, 2003

"You work off of instinct some but you also make sure you make a fair assessment."

—Linda Reed-Brown

Flood-related needs in Jefferson County, Ala., could have easily been overlooked but faith-based disaster response leaders won't let that happen.

After this spring's torrential rains and tornadoes, several Alabama counties received presidential disaster declarations.

More than 2,700 residents in Jefferson County in central Alabama turned in applications for federal assistance. But in Mobile County in the southwest tip of the state more than 24,000 people applied for assistance.

Those numbers caught the attention of Linda Reed-Brown of Church World Service's emergency response program.

"We started keeping an eye on it," she said. "Because numbers don't always represent people's needs. If 14,000 people in Mobile County had an inch of water in their homes that doesn't make a disaster to which we need to respond."

It's a matter of getting behind the numbers and looking at the real needs in a community, she explained.

That means weighing people's vulnerability. "How many elderly people were affected? Were people homeowners or renters? Did they have insurance?"

In the fast-paced disaster response world, decisions about where to put resources have to be made quickly. But that doesn't mean they're made haphazardly, Reed-Brown said. "You work off of instinct some but you also make sure you make a fair assessment."

For CWS and other faith-based groups, fair assessments are what keep Reed-Brown's integrity with her donors. The limited funds that come into CWS and its partners are too precious to use unwisely, she said.

"I always, always, ask: what is the appropriate response? Sometimes we might say we need more information."

The goal is to find out what local needs are and support local response, she added. "We don't want to roll into town and roll over what the locals are doing. We ask. We can only give money if there's somebody to give it to."

This time, it's a matter of asking: where's the real disaster in Alabama? So many Federal Emergency Management Agency applications came out of Mobile County that FEMA's inspector general is investigating.

As federal officials hunt for the reason behind Mobile County's high numbers, Reed-Brown and other faith-based response leaders are staying true to their mission of helping the people who need it the most.

That sometimes means questioning the validity of disaster damage reports, said Reed-Brown.

At her New York City-based office, she constantly culls through post-disaster statistics as she steers the limited resources of CWS to the most vulnerable disaster survivors in the nation.

Why did Alabama raise her eyebrows?

Because Mobile County's 24,000 FEMA applications are staggering when compared to other disasters across the country many of them more severe than Alabama's spring floods. There were less than 14,000 applications from some 29 counties after Tennessee's devastating May tornadoes. And Alabama's own flood events in the past five years usually spurred a couple thousand FEMA applications at most.

What's going on in Mobile County?

It has everyone from federal officials to county leaders mystified. "I cannot account for the high numbers," said Paulette Williams, director of Mobile County emergency management. "I've sort of been scratching my head."

A federal Small Business Administration official helping to issue loans in Alabama said he didn't have an explanation, either. 'This was fairly minor as far as disasters go. But applications just skyrocketed."

Other responders have theories: someone is "organizing" people in Mobile County, or residents are trying to claim damage from floods that happened after the declared disaster.

Some people may even be purposely flooding their own homes. One burglar arrested in an unconnected incident said he helped people flood their homes so they could get FEMA money, according to one FEMA official.

Meanwhile, said the FEMA official, in the sea of applications it's important not to lose sight of who's actually getting money. In Mobile County, of some 19,000 people who applied for housing assistance from FEMA, only about 35 percent were deemed eligible to receive any money. And only about 30 applicants received more than $5,000 for home repair.

Meanwhile, in Jefferson County about 80 percent of FEMA applicants were eligible for housing assistance funds, and more than 170 applicants received more than $5,000.

At least for now, that's where faith-based groups are concentrating their efforts. The Birmingham Area Interfaith Flood Recovery Committee is meeting at the Shades Valley Lutheran Church in Homewood, Ala., every Wednesday. "We're training six volunteer case managers," said Eldon Zimmerman, president of Alabama's Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, a consortium of faith-based and secular disaster response groups.

"We're out and about in Jefferson County. We're here to meet the unmet needs."

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