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Teamwork key in NC recovery

If "play well with others" and "be honest" seem like simple principles, try applying them to long-term disaster recovery.

BY SUSAN KIM | WAYNESVILLE, N.C. | August 1, 2005

"The storms hit in September, and by December when we were ready for volunteers, the holidays were here, and the volunteers didnít come."

—Denise Teague

If "play well with others" and "be honest" seem like simple principles, try applying them to long-term disaster recovery. It doesn't always happen.

But it is working in western North Carolina, said Denise Teague, community outreach coordinator for the Mountain Area Resource Center (MARC). "From the beginning, we tried to be really open about about what we had to contribute," she said.

And holding fast to those simple principles has seen this county through a complex disaster: back-to-back storm remnants last September that sent the river bursting through scores of homes and businesses.

The MARC - sponsored by the Haywood County Community on Aging, Inc. - is one player at the table for a countywide Unmet Needs Committee that still meets once a month.

Faith-based partners include the Church of Christ, Haywood Baptist Association, Haywood Christian Ministry, North Carolina Baptist Men, Salvation Army, United Methodist Church and others. Community partners include groups such as Mountain Projects, Inc., United Way and American Red Cross. County government officials also gather, and the discussion centers around families who still have flood-related needs.

Volunteers have been streaming into the area all summer, Teague said, but she remembers when that wasn't the case. "The storms hit in September, and by December when we were ready for volunteers, the holidays were here, and the volunteers didn't come."

Now volunteer interest has picked up, she said, and it's a good thing, since the Unmet Needs Committee is still seeing 8-10 new cases each month. "We're still identifying some needs," said Teague, adding that about half of the cases involve rebuilding or repairing homes.

Responding groups and volunteers alike have learned that disaster recovery takes a long time, added Celesa Willett, executive director of the United Way of Haywood County. "They're finally beginning to see this is a long-term situation," she said. "The only way to get that knowledge is to stay in the recovery process - and the partnerships have been the best part of this whole process. We were able to put our own agendas aside. And we really do care about our community and about each other."

United Way of America provided a grant through United Way of North Carolina, with funding by the Lilly Foundation, to support four local disaster recovery coordinators in western North Carolina for one year. The Haywood County area is just one part of this region-wide effort.

It has come a long way, said Willett, who remembers holding the very first Unmet Needs Committee meeting sitting on the floor of the county emergency operations center.

Now - nearly 11 months later - long-term recovery isn't just about physical needs, pointed out Teague, because people also have emotional reactions. "Even now, a lot of people who lived along the river say they don't want to stay. Two weeks ago we had flood warnings, and people just said they don't want to stay here anymore."

But with the fear has come new hope for the future, she added. "The Haywood County government and other agencies are building a housing development that will be annexed into Clyde. It's 24-40 homes, and it's going to be specifically built for low-income flood survivors - and it will be well out of the flood zone."

In nearly 11 months since the two floods hit, faith-based and community groups have built up a trust for each other - and in turn within the community. "We have mainly publicized ourselves by word of mouth," said Teague.

When the Unmet Needs Committee first convened, about 55 people were at the table, said Teague, then the group pared down to core active members.

When the community was learning about disaster recovery, they were grateful for help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Church World Service, she said, because both groups offered guidance and technical assistance as flood response transitioned from immediate relief to long-term recovery.

But, Teague said, they never felt like those national representatives were telling them what to do. "They came in and said, 'this is what happened in other places - but here you decide, because we're not going to be in the community in two years, and you are.'"

At first the Unmet Needs Committee was feeling its way along the new road of disaster recovery. "I remember sitting in an unmet needs meeting for three-and-a-half hours and we still has 46 cases to discuss," Teague said.

The committee members decided they needed five case managers, but that they wanted the case managers in different places across the county, so that clients could go where they felt most comfortable. "We had two case managers at the Mountain Area Resource Center, one at The Salvation Army, and two at Mountain Projects, Inc., a community action group."

For Haywood County, the case managers were funded through the Employment Security Commission, which in turn drew its funds from the Workforce Investment Act. Each case manager is funded for six months, and continuity can be a problem, said Teague and other responders, if a flood-affected family is working with a case manager who has to leave.

The committee also decided, early on, its stance on material donations versus financial donations. "We thought, 'what if we just got money?' Then we won't have a warehouse full of second-hand stuff."

The committee began focusing on buying discounted building supplies, furniture and appliances from local businesses, she said, which boosted the economy and helped damaged businesses come back.

The biggest challenge now, said Willett - a lifelong resident of the area - might be what she calls "mountain pride."

"People don't want to ask for help," she said, "They always say, 'there are other people worse off than me.'"

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