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TX families find new hope

Rio Grande Valley makes long-term recovery.

BY HEATHER MOYER | BROWNSVILLE, Texas | December 1, 2004

"The big issue in this process was the neighbors not trusting all the people who were trying to help - they were suspicious and nervous."

—Sister Norma Pimentel

"Many are still suffering," said Sister Norma Pimentel of more than 700 families in the Rio Grande Valley affected by severe flooding in October 2003.

Pimentel is president of Faith Communities for Disaster Recovery (FCDR) and the moderator for Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Brownsville, Texas. The counties hit so hard by last year's heavy rains, Hidalgo and Cameron, are the two poorest counties in the U.S., according to 2003 data from the U.S. Census Bureau. The affected communities suffer from high unemployment and poor housing conditions.

Flood damage compounded poverty in the region. According to Pimentel, mold is spreading through the houses, and many families lost all their appliances and belongings. The counties did not receive a federal declaration due to the pre-existing poor conditions of the homes, she said.

But new hope came to FCDR and the families in November. Last week the interfaith group hired a new director to lead the recovery process. FCDR did not have funds to hire a director until recently. "This is very promising," said Pimentel. "She will help us become more organized."

Until last week, the FCDR board was handling all the casework themselves - something Pimentel said made the process move very slowly due to the board members' other jobs and priorities. FCDR's new director will help the group reassess needs of the families, and then train caseworkers to assist in the caseload.

A key to the Rio Grande Valley recovery process, according to Pimentel, is training local volunteers to help. Affected families live across a widespread area, and many are suspicious of outsiders. "The big issue in this process was the neighbors not trusting all the people who were trying to help - they were suspicious and nervous," explained Pimentel.

One of the first tasks for the new director is to go into the communities - mostly Hispanic neighborhoods called "colonias" - and meet the town leaders. "You have to gain the respect of that person in order to gain access to the community. Meeting the leaders gives one credibility in the neighborhood," said the Rev. Laura Brewster, FCDR secretary and associate pastor of St. Mark United Methodist Church in McAllen.

Don Jones, disaster recovery coordinator for the southwest Texas conference of the United Methodist Church, is helping FCDR find volunteers and funding for long-term recovery. "It's still too early for folks in the valley to set a closing date for the process," said Jones.

He has been working with the Texas Baptist Men to help families remove and replace flood-damaged sheetrock in their homes. "We're also looking for people to donate building materials like sheetrock, insulation and plywood."

"Many of these families continue to use bleach to wipe down the walls and kill the mold," Jones said.

Brewster agreed, noting that some families cannot afford to cut out the damaged sheetrock and instead just keep trying to get rid of the mold with bleach.

She added that mold is always an issue in the area, since many of the homes are built in low-lying, flood-prone areas. "This is just another reason for (FCDR) to stay mobilized - it doesn't have to be a hurricane to affect these families. Any amount of hard rain is an issue down here."

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