Rural TX faces serious needs

Matagorda County is one of the poorest counties in Texas.

BY HEATHER MOYER | PALACIOS, Texas | June 22, 2004

Major floods struck parts of southeast and south central Ohio in January. (Photo courtesy West Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church)
Credit: Disaster News Network

Matagorda County is one of the poorest counties in Texas. Almost 20% of the county's 39,000 residents live below the federal poverty level.

So when Hurricane Claudette hit last July, the damages were widespread and deep. Hundreds of homes suffered damage and families are still trying to rebuild today, nearly one year after the storm.

Members of the Matagorda Interfaith Goodwill Humanitarian Team (MIGHT) are working to meet the needs of those affected. But as with other interfaith groups around Texas, volunteers and money are in short supply.

"We're having a hard time even affording a director at this point," said Kim Effenberger, executive director of the Matagorda County United Way and member of MIGHT. "We need major funding, both for administrative needs and for direct services."

MIGHT recently received a donation from Church World Service - "which we appreciate so much," said the board members - but more financial assistance is needed.

Matagorda County is very rural and the affected communities are far apart, a fact that makes recovery even more challenging.

"Many residents can't afford the gas to drive into town for help, or they're senior citizens and just can't drive," said Jean Peercy, Lutheran Disaster Response construction coordinator in Calhoun and Matagorda Counties. "And there's no public transportation either."

Transportation challenges affect members of MIGHT as well. Eric Klimpel, pastor at St. Peter Lutheran Church in Bay City and MIGHT board chair, said the MIGHT team does its best to represent the entire county.

"It's definitely a struggle," he said. "Sure, it'd be easy to have a board made up of people from one area (of the county), but you can't do that. And then there are the political issues between some cities."

Another challenge is the age of many communities. Old homes with elderly residents present tough decisions for the interfaith organization. "With some of these homes, the best idea might be to just start over, but these folks have lived in them for their entire lives. They wouldn't even think of leaving or even moving out temporarily," said Effenberger.

Peercy agreed. "You deal with a lot of pride issues in a rural area, understandably," she said.

Mary Concepcion understands that. The 89-year-old has lived in her small home for her entire life, and hasn't left it before, during, or after any hurricanes. Her home stands amongst many large trees, and is a patchwork combination of many older buildings connected through some rough construction.

Seated at the kitchen table in her home, Concepcion fans herself as a gentle breeze blows through the kitchen. Her daughter, Matilda Munoz, stands behind her. She lives in a nearby trailer and does her best to help her aging mother. She also helps translate for her mother, who speaks little English.

"When the storm came, it blew part of the roof off (Concepcion's home) and rain came in," said Munoz. "She hasn't gotten any help yet, and she didn't like asking for it.

We thought she might get help from some government organizations, but they all wanted a co-signer for her to get a loan. None of us were able to do that for her."

Since the hurricane, Concepcion has lived in her home while it rained in her bathroom and in a hallway during later storms. Mold is spreading across the ceiling the bathroom. Munoz said she and her husband are concerned about her mother living in those conditions.

"When it rained one time, she slipped on the wet floor and hurt herself," she said, pointing toward the leaking hallway.

"She's 89 and on a fixed income. We've been trying to help her, but we can only do so much."

MIGHT and Lutheran Disaster Response are currently assisting 110 families in Matagorda County, but expect the caseload to continue increasing as time passes. MIGHT caseworker Kristi Jackson said there are still many people who aren't aware they can get help, and then some decide they don't want to wait for the interfaith.

"Several residents didn't want to wait around for volunteers, so they did the repairs themselves as best they could," said Jackson. "We're dealing with many elderly residents, and also many undocumented people - but we're hardly even gotten to touch that issue yet because of delays."

Matagorda County is also home to a major shrimping and fishing industry, which Hurricane Claudette devastated. Undocumented workers are a big section of those workers.

"This was hard because many shrimpers and fishermen couldn't apply for (Federal Emergency Management Agency) assistance because they don't report this income, so they couldn't claim any income loss," said Jackson. "Many lost boats and traps that they still haven't been able to replace."

Jackson said MIGHT has tried to be a resource for anyone who applied for federal assistance.

"We just try to help people through the process, which is very cumbersome. (Federal Emergency Management Agency) applications are long and confusing, many don't understand them. And so then many don't even apply for help."

Klimpel said they expect the number of cases to rise even more once people see repairs and construction start.

But before that can move ahead, Klimpel reiterated the interfaith group's biggest needs.

"Money and volunteers," he said.

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