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'When do you move on?'

To her New York colleagues, Joann Hale is now "Woman of the Year" - but to a little boy and his dad in a hotel elevator, she is a stranger who kindly listened.

BY SUSAN KIM | ALBANY, N.Y. | October 24, 2004

"He was talking as if this tornado happened yesterday."

—Joann Hale

To her New York colleagues, Joann Hale is now "Woman of the Year" - but to a little boy and his dad in a hotel elevator, she is a stranger who kindly listened.

Hale was honored by the New York City Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) coalition, and by New York state officials on Friday night during the state's First Annual Disaster Human Services Conference.

But her colleagues said Hale does some of her best work after the applause is over.

As she returned to her room after the festivities, she came across a little boy and his dad in the elevator.

"The boy was around eight years old," Hale said, "and he had some bags of chips and pretzels. I said, are you having a party in your room?"

The boy's father politely asked if Hale was attending a conference. Hale, a Church World Service disaster response and recovery liaison, simply said, yes, it was a conference of disaster workers.

And the father began to talk about his own disaster. "He said, 'my house was hit by a tornado six years ago. My son was two-and-a-half years old when it happened.' "

The man continued to talk, Hale said, and his eyes filled with tears. "He was talking as if this tornado happened yesterday," said Hale. "He said, 'every time I see a disaster - like in Florida this year - I remember that. And every time my son hears a door slam, he jerks.' "

Hale isn't a mental health professional. Her job is to get people of faith to work together after disasters - and before disasters even strike.

And encounters like the one in the elevator are common in Hale's life - but to her they're never commonplace.

"I don't know if I gravitate to people like that - but it happens a lot."

Every day, Hale works at monitoring potential disasters, assessing damages, and reporting on faith-based response. Her job is both intense and sophisticated - she might provide a pastoral presence at a disaster site, work with faith-based responders to coordinate immediate response, or implement cooperative long-term recovery efforts.

But her philosophy is simple: "You just small-talk it," she said. "You talk story."

Hale, past chair of the New York VOAD, has responded in that state as well as across the country. And many churches, she said, simply aren't aware there's national faith-based resources related to disaster response.

She has visited with many pastors who aren't aware they might have a national disaster response ministry connected with their denomination.

"As you're listening to them, they might have no idea that the bigger picture is out there, especially if it's their first disaster," she said. "They might not have a computer, a fax machine, or even a telephone.

"In West Virginia, one couple - both of them were pastors - served nine churches between them. All they could do is concentrate on their congregations - and then comes a flood disaster."

Hale is not only willing to listen to stories - she's willing to tell her own.

In 1979, Hale lived in Love Canal, a neighborhood in Niagara Falls.

During the 1940s and 1950s, some 21,000 tons of toxic chemicals had been dumped into the Love Canal landfill.

In 1953, the landfill reached maximum capacity, and Hooker Chemical layered it with dirt and sold the land to the Niagara Falls Board of Education for one dollar. Included in the deed transfer was a warning of the chemical wastes buried on the property and a disclaimer absolving Hooker of any further liability.

The 99th Street Elementary School was built directly on the landfill, and single-family homes and apartments surrounded it. Residents began having inexplicable health problems. They noticed strange odors and substances on their property.

Hale remembered not being able to grow plants in her yard. "For a housewarming gift, I received some shrubs but they wouldn't grow."

"The community was in turmoil," remembered Hale. "Nobody knew what to do. It was a community of hurting people. More than 1,800 people lived there."

An interfaith group - the Ecumenical Task Force of the Niagara Frontier - was formed to help inform and support residents of Love Canal.

It was painful to wait for answers, Hale said. "You're just waiting for answers. People were being blamed for dumping stuff in their backyard."

On Aug. 2, 1978, the New York State Commissioner of Health, declared a medical State of Emergency at Love Canal and ordered immediate closure of the 99th Street School. The commissioner recommended moving away for pregnant women and children under two who were living in the immediate surrounding area of the Love Canal.

The language, at that time, Hale said, warned pregnant women that there was a risk of "fetal wastage" or "spontaneous abortion."

"What is fetal wastage?" Hale said. "I didn't know then that it meant a miscarriage. That kind of language can be on your psyche for a long time."

President Jimmy Carter declared the Love Canal area a federal emergency on Aug. 7, 1978. The federal government permanently relocated 239 families living in the first two rows of homes encircling the landfill.

More than 26 years later, Hale - whether responding in the field after a disaster or riding in an elevator with a stranger - still wrestles with unanswerable questions: "When do you feel whole again? When do you move on?"

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