Churches lead OK town's recovery

BY SUSAN KIM | Apache, OK | March 20, 2001

"Right after the flood I went out to check on people. I found other ministers doing the same thing. And we kept running into each other at the same homes."

—Rev. George Montanari

"The story of recovery in Apache is the story of churches rising to the occasion," said the Rev. George Montanari, senior pastor at the Apache Reformed Church.

On Oct. 22, rushing cascades of mud deluged the town of 1,600 people, cresting 38 feet in 10 hours. Mobile homes were shaken off their anchoring, the twisted siding in turn rupturing gas lines and causing fire atop the water. One family, perched on a neighbor's roof, watched their mobile home explode.

About 60 homes were seriously damaged, at least 15 of them total losses. Twelve had 7-9 feet of water in them. The town's school building for fourth, fifth, and sixth graders was heavily damaged, and all the contents were lost. The school shut down for two weeks and churches in Apache accommodated the students.

To meet flood codes, residents who lost their homes and want to rebuild in the same location have to rebuild their home two feet above the water mark. That means putting the homes on stilts, said Montanari -- "not a good idea here at the mouth of tornado alley."

Many people are relocating instead. But if they want to stay in Apache, that means finding land. "Apache is landlocked, and it's very hard to purchase land here," said Montanari. "That's really hindering people who want to relocate and it weighs heavy on our hearts."

Land prices have been elevated since the flood, he added. "In a small community you don't think that's going to happen but it did."

The Rev. Roy Young, minister at the Oak Street Church of Christ, said that the town has already lost some families because of the lack of land and housing. "With some concerted effort we might be able to get the landowners to let go of some lots" for free or for a reduced price, he said.

When people leave, "the schools suffer, the churches suffer, and the businesses suffer because fewer people are buying groceries, for example."

The Apache Recovery Team, a community-based ecumenical committee, is offering the kind of friendship and practical assistance that lifts people's spirits.

Montanari said the recovery team was borne out of local pastors' concern for what would happen to people after the flood. "Right after the flood I went out to check on people. I found other ministers doing the same thing. And we kept running into each other at the same homes."

Church World Service provided a $5,000 seed grant to help build the interfaith group. The grant was "really instrumental," said Montanari, and the result was what he calls "remarkable cooperation" among an alliance of ministers whose goal is to help their community recover from the flood.

Young added that the recovery team is strongly cohesive because the local pastors who established it already had a good relationship before the flood. "This has cemented us and bonded us together. For us, adversity had a way of bringing out the best in people."

Headquartered in a former medical building in downtown Apache, the recovery team office is a busy place. Volunteers from local churches serve as caseworkers for families.

To continue their work, the group needs funding, said Montanari, estimating about $150,000 is needed to fuel the long-term recovery efforts. "When FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) and SBA (Small Business Administration) checks came in, we began to understand how much people were going to get - and how much they were not going to get."

Coordinated through the recovery team, Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) and other church-based volunteers are lending a hand. Some volunteers are staying at the Apache Reformed Church, others at the interfaith committee's headquarters.

MDS has been in Apache for two months. Its volunteers, who have completed eight homes, are currently working on another five. In some cases, people who were previously renters can purchase an MDS-built home with lower monthly payments than their rent.

"I have never worked in a community that pulled together so much," said Karla Anstutz, project director for MDS.

Apache turns 100 years old this year, added Young. "In a town of the size of Apache, the churches are at the heart of the community. As goes the spirit of the churches, so goes the spirit of the community. We're aiming to help set this community back on its feet for the next 100 years."

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