Western NC better prepared

People in western North Carolina are planning better flood response for the future - and they've learned they have to work together.

BY SUSAN KIM | CLYDE, N.C. | August 8, 2005

"Well, when you have six feet of water in your home, then turn right around and have eight feet of water, it's hard to rebound after those two shocks."

—George Strunk

People in western North Carolina are planning better flood response for the future - and they've learned they have to work together.

When back-to-back floods hit last September, at first churches didnít team up to help people recover, recalled George Strunk, coordinator for North and South Carolina for Lutheran Disaster Response. "People really didn't understand how faith groups can help plan a long-term recovery together," he said. "It was difficult to grasp. But now it is one of the bright spots of disaster work in North Carolina. People stuck with it."

Now the community is seeing the fruitful results of such teamwork, he added, because recovery goes faster and volunteers can reach more people. "We were working on a small cottage-like house," Strunk recalled. "There were two of these homes side-by-side, and we were working on one. The woman who lived in the other came out and asked if her house would be fixed, too. When we said yes, she got this big, bright smile on her face."

The ecumenical cooperation is visible through the area. At the Canton Presbyterian Church, a Personal Care Unit is stationed. Purchased by the North Carolina Women of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the trailer unit contains showers so that volunteers can stay at the church, which isn't equipped with showers.

Some residents still sometimes get fearful when it rains, and they worry about another flood, said Strunk. "Well, when you have six feet of water in your home, then turn right around and have eight feet of water, it's hard to rebound after those two shocks."

But now there's a focus on preparedness and mitigation, he said, and that is helping people feel a little less helpless. "There are things you can do to prevent flood damage. You can elevate your appliances, for example."

Preventing flood damage is sometimes easier than convincing someone to move out of harm's way, said Strunk. "Some of these homes have been in the family for generations. How do you tell people they canít live here anymore?"

Local and regional church leaders have learned valuable lessons that will help them respond better to disasters in the future, agreed Mike Collins, director of volunteer response ministries for the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Before the floods struck, local church leaders knew a lot less about disaster response, he said. "Now every district in western North Carolina has a disaster response coordinator. Churches are equipped with their own special edition of a disaster response manual."

Standing at the United Methodist Disaster Recovery Center in Clyde, N.C., Collins said he thought response in this community was successful because local leaders took the reins and were given the resources they needed. "I think the reason this is such a successful response is that it's locally run. It's not top-down."

The United Methodist Committee on Relief, as well as the North Carolina-based Marion Edwards Recovery Center Initiatives offered training and technical assistance to local responders, helping them formulate a recovery plan. Church World Service also provided funds and support.

Throughout western North Carolina, Collins said, churches are better equipped to respond to smaller-scale disasters as well. "For example, on July 7, a tornado hit the Taylorsville area. About 30 homes were affected. Three of those families had no insurance. They might need some help, and churches there now know how to offer that help."

Collins said he has watched his region learn to work across denominational lines as well. "Nobody in this part of the state knew how to work together ecumenically," he said. "Now they do and they are."

The United Methodist Disaster Recovery Center focuses on helping people with disaster-related needs ranging from home repairs to financial strain. From the very beginning of response, the center decided not to focus on material donations such as clothing and children's toys. Instead, the center matches resources on a case-by-case basis with flood survivors who have vastly different needs.

But the recovery center often directs offers of clothing and other material donations to the nearby Haywood Baptist Association Disaster & Relief Center. Baptist Association representatives moved there last February, said J.B. Bowers, volunteer coordinator, with the intent to help flood survivors. "Now we have opened out our mission, and any person in need can get food or clothing," he said. "But to pick up furniture and appliances here, you have to be referred by another agency to us."

Faith-based responders all said they see that many people are not back in their homes, even after 11 months have gone by. Bowers said when people do go home, they often need furnishings, especially if they've lost everything to the flood. "One lady moved back into her trailer home yesterday," he said. "We basically furnished her trailer."

Around him there are racks and stacks of used clothing - the most common donation, he said. "The world is full of old clothes," he said wryly, adding that another warehouse off the premises holds even more. The center - which has helped more than 700 families since the floods struck - is also full of dishes, furniture, childrenís toys, groceries and more.

Each faith group seems to have found its niche in the recovery, said Bowers. Before the flood, he said, he didn't work much across faith lines. "The flood has had some advantages in that area," he said. "We cooperate more because we understand each other's needs more."

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