Nebraska eyes longterm rebuild

When J.J. Kuzma arrived in Hallam, Neb., after the May 22 tornado, he couldn't believe what he saw.

BY HEATHER MOYER | HALLAM, Neb. | July 7, 2004

"This is a multi-county declaration by (the Federal Emergency Management Agency), so we're doing this as a Nebraska recovery, not just a Hallam recovery."

—J.J. Kuzma

When J.J. Kuzma arrived in Hallam, Neb., after the May 22 tornado, he couldn't believe what he saw. The F4 twister had nearly demolished the town, but he noticed something more surprising - and positive.

"What was shocking to me was that only one person died - only 37 people were hurt, and none had life-threatening injuries," said Kuzma, disaster director for the western division of The Salvation Army. He said he couldn't believe - given that level of destruction - more lives hadn't been taken.

The giant twister left a devastating path across ten southeastern Nebraska counties, destroying more than 160 homes and severely damaging 93 others. Many other homes across that area and the rest of the state also suffered flood damage in late May. Severe storms and floods garnered a federal disaster declaration for 27 counties across the state.

Kuzma serves on a newly created statewide interfaith group, the Nebraska Disaster Recovery Organization (NDRO), as well as the Nebraska Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters (NEVOAD). Kuzma also said other NDRO member organizations include the American Red Cross, Interchurch Ministries, Adventist Community Services, United Way, Lutheran Disaster Response, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and others.

NDRO will be a major force in rebuilding Hallam, said Kuzma, but that is not the group's sole focus. "This is a multi-county declaration by (the Federal Emergency Management Agency), so we're doing this as a Nebraska recovery, not just a Hallam recovery," explained Kuzma. Other hard-hit towns include Wilber, Swanton and Clatonia.

The interfaith is still in its organizing phase, coordinating donations and case management among other responses, said Jennifer Curran, NEVOAD chair.

Curran said in the meantime, the Nebraska Rural Response Hotline is taking the majority of assistance calls.

"They're providing crisis and case management at this point," said Curran, who also serves as outreach manager for United Way of the Midlands.

The Nebraska Rural Response Hotline is a service of the Farm and Rural Response Network and Interchurch Ministries of Nebraska that provides referral services to members of farm, ranch and rural communities.

The region hit by the tornado is very rural, with many farms suffering damages to outbuildings and crops.

"Farmers are worried about remaining debris in their fields because it could destroy their combines and other equipment," said Mark Kirchhoff, disaster relief coordinator for Lutheran Disaster Response in Nebraska. Volunteers are still needed to help the farmers clean up field debris.

Kirchhoff said one of the interfaith group's current major tasks is trying to identify where the needs are. "There are a lot of questions still out there right now," he said. "Needs are still emerging daily. We're doing what we can to encourage people to get help, but some farmers throughout the region may not have made their needs known just yet."

Kuzma agreed, adding that many needs may not surface until months or even a year later.

More than a month later, Hallam is still mostly in ruins. But some good news came Wednesday when Nebraska Governor Mike Johanns awarded $800,000 in grant funding from the Nebraska Affordable Housing Trust Fund to two community agencies.

The Lincoln Action Program Housing Development Corporation and the Blue Valley Community Action Agency -- both members of NDRO -- will split the money and use it to help qualified applicants in tornado-ravaged counties rebuild their homes.

Hallam still needs more help, however. "We're still dealing with major cleanup there," said Curran.

After the tornado struck Hallam, hundreds of volunteers descended on the little town - more than local officials knew what to do with. Since then, volunteers have dwindled. More cleanups are planned for upcoming weekends, and disaster recovery workers are hoping more volunteers will step in.

"Some local papers were saying no more volunteers were needed, but I don't think that's true at all," said Kirchhoff. "We're trying to identify volunteers and establish a mechanism to get them all together and working in the right areas. It still looks pretty bad out here."

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Related Links:

Nebraska Disaster Recovery Organization

Nebraska Rural Response Hotline


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