AL delayed by supply shortage

A severe building supply shortage in Alabama is delaying repairs to hurricane damage that has lingered for more than a year.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | October 5, 2005

"Hey, we had a disaster last year in Alabama - and this year, too."

—Paul Walker

A severe building supply shortage in Alabama is delaying repairs to hurricane damage that has lingered for more than a year.

"I'm talking absolutely zero building supplies: not a screw, not a board," explained Paul "Mike" Walker, a general contractor who is managing volunteer rebuilding projects for the Church of the Brethren Emergency Response/Service Ministries. "We seem to have a lot of donated canned goods and donated relief kits. But they don't have the first two-by-four, or the first piece of sheet rock. I mean, right now there are absolutely no building materials available."

Meanwhile residents - many of them elderly - need home repairs they can't do themselves. They've been waiting since Hurricane Ivan made landfall near Gulf Shores, Alabama, on Sept. 16 of last year.

"We actually have a facility to house donated building supplies," said Walker, who has been working in Mobile and Washington counties. "But, look, we need to have stuff here. People up north - I'm talking to people like Lowe's - you need to donate and ship some supplies to Alabama."

Without donated building supplies, people have to buy what they can, said Walker. And prices are so high, he added, that financially struggling residents canít buy building materials - and neither can volunteer groups that are willing and able to do the repairs. "We're trying to stretch our dollars as it is," he said. "And we are talking about residents who are elderly or disabled, and people who feel like they're politically unimportant."

Church of the Brethren and other faith-based disaster response groups are working through the Alabama Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster coalition, and through unmet needs committees that identify the most vulnerable hurricane-affected people.

Walker and his volunteer groups are also making emergency repairs in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Between the building supply shortage and the national media focus on Louisiana and Mississippi, many people in Alabama feel forgotten, he said.

"Hey, we had a disaster last year in Alabama - and this year, too," he said. "But all people are seeing on the news is New Orleans, and Louisiana, and Mississippi. I've got news for you: Alabama was hard hit, too. Hello? Last time I checked, Alabama was a state."

Even with feelings of frustration, people are coping fairly well with both Ivan damage and Katrina damage, he said. "Right now I'm working on a house started after Ivan. Six different agencies have gone in there. The file was finally given to me. This elderly woman hasn't been in her house yet."

When he thinks of the sheer geographic area affected by Katrina, he fears some people might wait more than a long time - they might wait the rest of their lives. "I think truly what we're looking at with Katrina, is that we're going to have some people displaced forever. Our area right here in Alabama is gigantic. It is absolutely gigantic as far as the territory covered."

Walker urged people who want to help to think of Alabama - and other hurricane-affected states - after some time goes by, and the disaster leaves the headlines. "Think about us six months from now, because we're going to have a problem down here. I wonder about why people insist on helping right away after a disaster - or not helping at all. I call it 'America's microwave management' - if it isn't instant gratification, people don't want it."

Walker and other responders have a word of caution for people with hurricane-damaged homes. They should make only emergency repairs - such as putting tarps over damaged roofs to avert further rain damage - until they have worked through their insurance claims and their Federal Emergency Management Agency or Small Business Administration applications.

"We are doing emergency repair work only for Katrina," he said. "If we do anything besides emergency repair work, people might not be eligible for aid. Emergency repairs mainly mean putting up tarps and debris removal. We are not going to put permanent roofs on structures. People might lose grant money, or they lose insurance money. Think of it as a band-aid before long-term recovery."

Walker said he has been involved in disaster response volunteer work for 42 years. "The more you give, the more you get back," he said. Last week, on the same day, two separate volunteer teams received two handmade quilts from residents they helped. The quilts will be auctioned off at Church of the Brethren disaster relief auctions, and the proceeds will benefit disaster survivors.

Walker, who is originally from Pennsylvania, also had another bit of education for potential volunteers coming to Alabama: there are love bugs. Not movie-star Volkswagen Beetles, but large flies that swarm across south Alabama in April-May and August-September. Thanks to a wet summer and hurricane rains, hundreds of them are congregating at intersections, traffic lights, filling stations and truck stops.

"Love bugs are one thing we do not wish to import to the north," he said. "I mean, they're like roadkill everywhere. I couldn't get them off with an ice scraper. Windshield washers don't move them. It's a good thing they don't bite or sting."

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