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‘We absolutely need volunteers’

Jean Peercy walked through the door to Mamie Hamilton's home and voiced their typical greeting.

BY HEATHER MOYER | PORT LAVACA, Texas | June 21, 2004

"Every time it rains, it gets worse."

—Mamie Hamilton

Jean Peercy walked through the door to Mamie Hamilton's home and voiced their typical greeting. "How's it going?"

"See all my buckets?" Hamilton laughed, pointing to buckets all around her home. "When it rains - it rains."

Hamilton lives in Port Lavaca, Texas, a small coastal town devastated by Hurricane Claudette last July. The damages in Hamilton's home have only gotten worse since the storm, with mold spreading across the ceiling and major leaks spreading due to the damaged roof.

Hamilton said she left the area when the storm came in, but returned very quickly when authorities let residents back in. She said past storms have not been as serious.

"This is the only time we've been damaged by a hurricane, and I've lived here my whole life," said Hamilton. "I didn't think (the damage) was too bad at first, but it's gotten much worse."

Looking through Hamilton's home were Dale and Jean Peercy and Patty Echols. The Peercys serve as construction coordinators for Lutheran Disaster Response in Calhoun and Matagorda counties, and Echols is the caseworker for the local group Interfaith Christians Assisting in Recovery and Empowerment (ICARE).

Noticing that all Hamilton's food was out of the cupboards and sitting on the counter, Jean Peercy asked if the leaks had spread.

"Every time it rains, it gets worse," explained Hamilton, noting that she'd had to move her food, clothes and sewing supplies frequently due to spreading leaks. She added that her hobbies have taken a hit as well.

"I can't find anything to craft with anymore, I keep moving everything," she said, laughing.

'The hurricane that didn't hit Corpus'

On the wall of the ICARE office is a satellite photo of Hurricane Claudette. In the middle of the huge hurricane cloud is a red dot noting the location of Port Lavaca.

"This hurricane is becoming known as 'the hurricane that didn't hit Corpus Christi,'" said Don Jones, disaster recovery coordinator for the southwest Texas conference of the United Methodist Church. Claudette had been predicted to hit Corpus Christi, but moved north at the last minute.

"Lots of folks thought because it didn't hit there, that suddenly you didn't have to pay attention anymore," said Jones. "But those who live in this area and got hit would disagree."

Hundreds of homes were affected in Calhoun County, where Port Lavaca is. ICARE formed several months later to focus on the long-term needs of the affected families. Many homes are not repaired, though, and that's because of one major problem.

"We absolutely need volunteers so badly," said Echols.

The Peercys echoed the sentiment. "We are in desperate need of volunteers," said Jean Peercy. Many repair projects are prepared and ready to go, according to Echols and the Peercys, the only thing missing are the hands to do them.

"We're putting out a call all over," said Echols, pointing to fliers and newspaper advertisements she said she's placed throughout town. "But we've gotten no response."

The Peercys have only two volunteer work groups scheduled for the summer.

More help is on the way, but not until after Labor Day, when work teams from the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee will arrive. The Peercys also put the word out through Lutheran churches nationwide.

"We've told everyone that we're ready to go, but we just need help," said Jean Peercy. "The volunteer is the heart and hope of the program."

With more than 150 cases, ICARE has plenty of work to do. But even with the lack of volunteers, many other needs have still been provided for. Members of ICARE have helped clean lawns covered with storm debris, buy food for the families, and take care of other needs as they presented themselves.

“We’ve also helped replace some home skirting and built several porches for mobile homes,” said Echols. “We’ve helped many people through the recovery process. So many people were lost and didn’t know what to do or who to ask for help.

“We do our best, but it’s hard to reassure people when it’s raining in their living room.”

’Good things come to those who wait’

In the back room of Serefina Cuellar’s home is a major health hazard. Spreading across the ceiling is black mold – and that’s just the visible mold. Cuellar’s roof was also severely damaged by Hurricane Claudette, and several rain-caused holes sag in the home’s ceiling.

“That (mold) is not healthy at all,” said Dale Peercy. “We’ve seen so many health problems – when that stuff gets into your lungs, it’s just a serious health issue.”

Cuellar said she’s doing what she can to stay positive. Standing among the numerous buckets around her kitchen, she said her life spent as a missionary helps with that goal. “I’m keeping the faith,” she said with a smile. “My husband says, ‘Good things come to those who wait,’ and the Lord definitely provides.”

Humor also helps. “It was raining in here this morning,” she laughed, pointing toward the ceiling in the kitchen. “But, I just use the water to water my plants, I try to find a use for everything.”

Just across town, another family is dealing with mold and holes in their roof. Anna and Idelia Villareal, two elderly sisters who live together, said the hurricane didn’t spare their home.

“Our whole carpet was wet. The ceiling in the kitchen and in my bedroom leaks, and now bees are coming in,” said Anna Villareal, pointing at a bee on the kitchen ceiling.

Because the holes in the Villareal’s roof have not yet been fixed, bees have started making the Villareal’s home their own. The sisters added that when it rains, water leaks down into their light fixtures as well.

In Anna’s bedroom, plastic covers the floor. Above her bed is a huge hole in the ceiling. Having lived with the damage since last July, the frustration is starting to set in a little for the sisters.

Echols said that’s the heart-wrenching part of the job.

“I’m doing everything I can to help them keep hope. They do understand that it’s long-term, and knowing we’re Christian also helps, but it’s very hard,” said Echols. “I try to talk to them all the time, and fortunately they do their best to keep the faith.”

Standing in the Villareal’s front yard, Echols and the Peercys sum up the problem again.

“This boils down to one thing: no volunteers,” said Dale Peercy.

“We have everything ready to go, but no one to do the work,” added Echols.

Patience and faith keep the Villareal’s hope alive. Idelia Villareal understands. “With Jesus we’ll get to it,” she said smiling and pointing up to the sky. “It will take time.”

Not if, but when

Back at the ICARE office later that day, Echols and the Peercys worry about the weather. “This area is over double the annual rainfall amount already,” said Jean Peercy.

“And then we had another big storm last night, and the ground is soaked,” added Dale Peercy. “We’re hoping this is not a primer for what’s to come.”

Yet the Peercys say every interfaith group needs to know that it’s not a matter of if another disaster comes, but being prepared when it comes.

“Right now, it wouldn’t take anything more than a tropical depression to hurt this area again,” said Jean Peercy.

Echols laughed and voiced a thought. “If only it could rain volunteers instead of raindrops!”

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