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Texas town pushes on

Grace Mora was not in her office when the powerful storms hit in early April, but judging by the damage around the rest of Falfurrias, she knew her office wouldn't be spared.

BY HEATHER MOYER | FALFURRIAS, Texas | June 15, 2004

"Main Street looked like a big creek."

—Dorothy Wilder

Grace Mora was not in her office when the powerful storms hit in early April, but judging by the damage around the rest of Falfurrias, she knew her office wouldn't be spared. Yet when the First United Methodist Church (FUMC) parish nurse saw her office the next day, it was still a shock.

Hail broke out nearly every window in the church, including the ones in her office. Strong winds blew rain into her office, destroying all the office equipment. As a Wesley Nurse for the church, her office also held mattresses and other medical supplies she would loan out when needed. All of it was ruined.

"It was a huge mess," said Mora, walking around her office. "All the windows in the church were boarded up for about six weeks. And we just got new flooring done in here."

The window blinds are bent and battered, a product of the storm, said Mora. Each room's furniture is still all pushed to the center or over to one wall. In the church parlor, Mora paused amongst the jumbled furniture. "This is such a beautiful room normally - when all the furniture is in the right place," she said.

Over in the FUMC fellowship hall, members of the Hands of Hope Interfaith (HHI) gathered for a meeting. Newspaper articles covered the table, with black and white photos of hands holding baseball-sized hail and headlines about flood damage, frustration and determination.

The April storms damaged hundreds of homes in Falfurrias, a town about 80 miles southwest of Corpus Christi. Hail punched holes in roofs and windows. Flooding also hit the town hard. "Main Street looked like a big creek," said Dorothy Wilder, a member of HHI.

Since the storms, HHI has worked non-stop helping residents repair their homes. Most of the residents are uninsured and live in poverty, and not getting a federal disaster declaration seriously impacted the recovery process.

"So far I'm working with 175 to 200 families," said Susana Martinez, office administrator for HHI. "We've fixed 10 roofs so far, and we've got another 30 on our priority list. But there are many, many others that need some kind of repair."

Martinez said the organization has received monetary and volunteer help from all over the country, but much more is still needed.

Monday's meeting had HHI members sitting down with Lutheran Disaster Response Construction Coordinators Dale and Jean Peercy from Palacios, Texas. The Peercys joined Disaster Response Coordinator for the United Methodist Church's Southwest Texas Conference Don "Bogie" Jones to offer recovery advice and help to HHI.

The situation in Falfurrias is still dire. Not only are many residents living with leaking roofs, but many are also dealing with serious mold in their homes. The lack of media attention has also made the recovery process a challenge. Many outside of Falfurrias are surprised to hear that there was flooding at all - and some outsiders made it sound like Falfurrias was hardly even a residential area.

"The media gave us no attention, and when they did they would say things like nothing but cows live out here," said Mora. "We never get attention because we're surrounded by ranches, so they think no one lives here."

Martinez said the poverty level in the area makes securing some grants extremely difficult. "Many of the damaged homes aren't worth more than $8,000," explained Martinez. "So many grants require homes be worth more than that, that the homeowners have insurance, and that residents have paid all their taxes. Things like that just aren't realistic with the folks I'm helping."

Jones said the lack of media attention and significant poverty for disaster stricken parts of southern Texas increases the need for help. "Because there are so many in need down here, we are in critical need of volunteers," said Jones. "When we get no (Federal Emergency Management Agency) declaration, when so many people down here are uninsured or maybe undocumented - we need serious help. Sometimes larger organizations will say 'Well, if your roof had been in better condition, you wouldn't have had this damage,' and we just say 'if the folks down here had money, the roof wouldn't be a problem.'"

Besides volunteers, sheet rock, roofing supplies, and flooring are major needs Martinez listed. She said a woman just called in the other day reporting that they'd finally ripped out her carpet, which then revealed significant black mold and even some remaining water between some of the walls. Residents are dealing with mold, buckled floors, and wood rot.

Other HHI members agreed that roof damage wasn't the only issue. "The hail would break out the windows, and then the high wind just blew all the rain and debris right into the homes," said HHI member Lowell Wilder.

As for new roofs, Martinez said the average roof she helps residents put on costs $2,400. "Part of our program is to empower people, so I ask them what they can put in to help with the repairs - like money or some labor," she said. "Whatever they can put in, it's good. Even if it's $10, we just want to empower people."

The recovery will definitely be long-term, and Mora, along with HHI members, hope they get a break from serious weather for a bit.

"We're only 23 miles from the coast," said Mora. "Hurricane season just started, and we're praying a hurricane doesn't come through here."

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