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'We have to take care of people'

Greg Patin now knows how to talk to parishes about disasters.

BY HEATHER MOYER | HOUSTON, Texas | December 2, 2004

"Houston did not have an active VOAD, and that really hurt us."

—Greg Patin

Greg Patin now knows how to talk to parishes about disasters.

The director of community outreach for Catholic Charities of the diocese of Galveston-Houston, Patin played a major role in recovery from Tropical Storm Allison in the region. He sees no problems with convincing parishes of the need to be a part of the recovery process now.

"I am now definitely able to tell parishes that this is our mission. We have to take care of people, especially in disasters when people are most downtrodden."

Tropical Storm Allison walloped the Houston region in June 2001, dropping close to three feet of rain over several days. The floods killed 22 people and caused over $5 billion in damages. Hundreds of homes were destroyed or suffered significant damage.

Now, over three years later, Patin and the Allison Recovery Initiative (ARI) are wrapping up their final recovery tasks. The team repaired or rebuilt over 400 homes, and the final five on their list are being rebuilt right now.

"We had over 2,600 cases in our database. We did lose contact with some of those folks, as some decided to clean up and rebuild on their own, and others were ineligible," reflected Patin. "But the success story is that over 400 homes were repaired."

The road to recovery in Houston was a rough one, and Patin said that he learned many lessons along the way. One of those lessons was to have an active chapter of Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD). "Houston did not have an active VOAD, and that really hurt us. Many local agencies did not know what others had to offer. We learned that communication was very important."

Houston VOAD is up and running now, added Patin, and the team is focusing on how to be ready next time disaster strikes. He said they are better prepared now. And while the recovery process took awhile to get on its feet in Houston after Allison drenched the region, the ensuing teamwork is very notable.

Patin said volunteers donated over 58,000 hours of their time, which adds up to roughly $1 million in labor. Groups like Mennonite Disaster Service, Christian Reformed World Relief Committee, Lutheran Disaster Response, Adventist Community Services, and the United Methodist Committee on Relief all took significant roles in the recovery, he said.

Another lesson learned was making sure a brand new interfaith recovery organization doesn't take on too many tasks. "The group needs to be well-managed and have a specific job," he noted, adding that the group needs to have a clear picture of which participating agencies do what, and then delegate tasks.

Overall, Patin feels like the recovery process was successful. Having learned the hard way about the importance of planning ahead, Patin decided to share his knowledge with others. He and the Catholic Diocese of Houston-Galveston produced a manual for other churches to use when deciding how to make a disaster plan. That manual's distribution started within the diocese of 161 churches, but moved beyond.

The national office of Catholic Charities received the manual next, which was then promptly reproduced and sent to every Catholic Charities office across the country. Just recently, Patin gave a copy of the manual to Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston, which then revised the manual for an ecumenical audience. "And that involves 1,000 churches in the area."

Even the smallest number of people who respond positively to the manual offers Patin hope. "Even if we just get one percent of the one million Catholics in the area - that's 10,000 people ready to respond. And imagine the impact within the 1,000 churches - even getting one-tenth of one percent - it would be great."

Patin said having the VOAD now in place already makes the area better prepared than it was before Tropical Storm Allison. Cooperation with city and county agencies is allowing for more training of everyday people as disaster responders. "We are sharing our talents and resources and looking constantly at raising the bar on disaster preparedness."

Crediting his faith for getting him through the difficult disaster recovery, Patin reflected on spiritual life over the past several years. "I'd never done this before, so I was just trusting that (God) would put the right people in place for me to work with and learn from. Over time, I've seen God give me the strength to continue. I don't think I would've been able to get through it without my faith."

When talking to parishes about disaster relief now, he tells a story about his father that he never fully understood until moving into disaster recovery himself. Patin said his parents' home flooded twice during the 1990s, and after the second time he went up to help his father clean up. Noticing how upset his father was, Patin took him aside to talk about it. "He just exploded at that point, saying how the Red Cross had been to see him, and The Salvation Army, and the Lutherans, the Methodists, and other faiths. Then he said 'Everybody but my church was here.'

"Now I tell parishes about this story. When we don't step up - Catholics question their relationship with our church. And it's not just about helping the Catholics, we are responding to God's children - no matter where they come from."

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