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Texas: 'frustration setting in'

Across south Texas, from Edinburg to Brownsville, last September's rainfall was three times the norm.

BY HEATHER MOYER | McALLEN, Texas | June 16, 2004

"People build what they can to live in."

—Rev. Laura Brewster

Across south Texas, from Edinburg to Brownsville, last September's rainfall was three times the norm - and it just kept falling. Severe flooding destroyed numerous homes and affected thousands of families.

After the floods hit, church officials gathered to form an interfaith called Faith Communities for Disaster Recovery (FCDR).

The Rev. Laura Brewster, secretary for FCDR and associate pastor at St. Mark's United Methodist Church in McAllen, said the group's members have been working very hard to help flood-affected families, but many remain in need.

"We've been doing all we can, but the frustration is setting in," said Brewster. "Many have waited so long for help. And it's frustrating to see time going by - soon it will be September again and it will rain again."

On Tuesday morning the sun is shining through the window in Brewster's office at St. Mark's. Outside, parents and their children rush by on their way to the church's preschool program. Seated across from Brewster are Lutheran Disaster Response Construction Coordinators Dale and Jean Peercy, and Don "Bogie" Jones, disaster response coordinator for the southwest Texas conference of the United Methodist Church. They're in town to offer advice and assistance to Brewster and the interfaith.

"The biggest problem here is that (FCDR has) no caseworker or program director," said Jones, who's been in touch with FCDR throughout the recovery process. "We need the funding for both those positions. We desperately need to hire someone - they're dealing with over 700 cases."

Brewster quickly agreed. "Our board members have been working so hard, but they can only do so much," she said. "We've not been able to help as much as we've wanted. We've not been a force in response like we wanted."

The region FCDR covers is a very large section of the mid-to-lower Rio Grande Valley. Jones estimates the area runs 200-300 square miles - something that makes the recovery process all the more challenging.

And like the other south Texas areas affected by storms in the past three months, the combination of regional poverty, no federal disaster declaration, and lack of media attention further complicates the situation.

One unique challenge in this disaster is the hundreds of small Hispanic communities throughout the area, called colonias. Almost all of the colonias suffer from significant poverty. Most of them lack running water and indoor plumbing. "People build what they can to live in," said Brewster. "There's not a lot of infrastructure. Some do have basic needs, but all have storm drainage issues."

Brewster and Jones said the recovery efforts have had a challenging time entering these communities to offer help because the residents rarely trust outsiders. "And that's because many of them are undocumented, and some only speak Spanish and don't know they can ask for help," said Brewster.

Jones gave an example of that challenge. Shortly after the floods, he came down to the McAllen area with the Texas Baptist Men and a state organization to help remove waterlogged sheetrock in affected homes. "That didn't go over well because it was a group of people in uniforms who didn't speak the language," said Jones. "They hardly got into any homes to help because the residents suspected them."

In order to get help into the colonias, Brewster said one must meet with and gain the trust of the colonia's president. "It's hard to gain trust for a number of reasons, but usually it has to do with documentation," she explained.

Gaining a caseworker and director will help FCDR be able to focus on areas in need, like the colonias. "It's sad for us right now because we haven't been able to meet all the existing needs," said Brewster. "If we don't have our organization fleshed out better, we won't be able to help now or when this happens again.

"Our goal is to be ready then - we want to be ready."

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