When needs don't make news

Jane Yount has been noticing the looks of surprise when she talks about lingering hurricane-related needs in Florida.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | November 5, 2004

"Many of the children started school four times in six weeks - which was very disruptive."

—Kevin King

Jane Yount has been noticing the looks of surprise when she talks about lingering hurricane-related needs in Florida. "People are surprised there are still needs in Florida. They say, 'oh, I thought everybody was okay by now.' "

But with thousands of people living in tents, travel trailers or mold-infested homes, and thousands more being financially and emotionally pinched, recovery is nowhere near complete.

In fact, it's just beginning, and responders are increasingly concerned about the "disconnect" between public perception and the real state of recovery in Florida.

When long-term recovery leaves the headlines, and public support dries up, it not only slows physical recovery but it's emotionally difficult for those most impacted, too. "Survivors themselves start to lose hope," explained Yount, coordinator of disaster response for the Church of the Brethren's emergency response/service ministries. "And agencies trying to provide relief sometimes find it hard to keep it in the limelight."

It's not just Florida wrestling with this issue - it seems to happen whenever a post-disaster site moves from the headline-grabbing emergency phase into long-term recovery.

The Church of the Brethren is helping people in the southeast Nebraska town of Hallam rebuild their homes - more than five months after a tornado wiped out nearly every structure in the town. It's hard to make people realize that post-disaster needs don't go away very quickly, said Yount.

And it's difficult when long-term needs don't make the news, because it gives the public a false perception that recovery is complete, added Kevin King, executive coordinator of Mennonite Disaster Service.

People may think Floridians are "back in their homes safe and secure," he said. "But I am still hearing reports about how people are still struggling with depression, construction plans, financial woes, time lag for contractors to do their work, and more."

It takes a long time for families to simply feel normal, he added. "Many of the children started school four times in six weeks - which was very disruptive."

More than one million people have registered for federal aid in Florida.

And as critical as the needs are in that state, responders are faced with tough choices when it comes to directing limited resources at disaster-related needs across the country.

If it's hard to refocus people on the needs in Florida, it's even more difficult in places like West Virginia and Ohio that were wracked by less publicized flooding.

Faith-based and voluntary disaster response groups are often the only hope for people who don't qualify for federal or state aid, and who may have been living on the financial edge before the disaster.

Given that many states are on the brink of winter temperatures, the pressure to respond is substantially increased.

Across the board, it's the "people who have fallen through the cracks" that faith-based groups try to find and help, said Johnny Wray, executive director of Week of Compassion, the relief and development fund of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

After offering food and shelter to people immediately after a disaster, faith-based groups are often the last responders left after federal and state responders leave. "We provided basic immediate assistance" after hurricanes in Florida and floods in West Virginia and Ohio, said Wray.

But now, on top of concerns about the thousands affected in Florida, Wray wonders how the public will even know there are long-term needs in places like West Virginia, because it "didn't get the attention Florida got."

In southeastern Mississippi, faith-based groups are in search of volunteers to help rebuild and repair homes that were damaged by Hurricane Ivan - just when many people are surprised to hear that state was affected at all.

And - across the country - hundreds of people in San Diego County still aren't back in their homes after last year's wildfires.

Ultimately - whatever the state - there is a long-term commitment to help disaster-impacted people, no matter how long a disaster stays in the headlines, said Bill Adams, administrator of the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC) Disaster Response Services.

Like other faith-based groups, CRWRC has been assessing needs in Florida - and other states - and is planning to address the most serious needs.

But, said Adams, "the damage is so widespread that there will be many areas that will have to wait for help. CRWRC and many of the other volunteer groups have limited resources, and the need goes way beyond Florida."

If the general public had a better understanding of long-term recovery - and what it means to the most vulnerable people - it would help build support, he added.

"There are many vulnerable groups - the elderly, infirmed, and other marginalized populations - that will wait and perhaps never get restored." Commitment for recovery has to start in the community, and must be supported by the national organizations that are in a position to help.

"The work won't be easy, but with ongoing awareness and continued help from the public, it can be accomplished. Historically the faith community has remained with the work until it's completed, and I suspect that this year's hurricanes will be no different."

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