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TX city resettles thousands

Thousands of Hurricane Katrina survivors are still trying to readjust to life in new cities.

BY HEATHER MOYER | AUSTIN, Texas | October 25, 2005

"We welcome these people with open arms."

—Amy Elder

Thousands of Hurricane Katrina survivors are still trying to readjust to life in new cities. For those evacuated to Austin, a new agency is helping them settle in.

"Resettlement is a long process," said Amy Elder, co-coordinator of the newly-formed Texas Interfaith Disaster Response (TIDR) in Austin. "I really believe the hardest work is yet to come."

Elder volunteered to help lead the interfaith group at a recent meeting of the central Texas chapter of Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD). TIDR is focusing on multiple issues with the resettlement, with much of the work being matching needs with resources. Elder said they are working closely with many other recovery groups, such as churches, several local synagogues, the Austin Muslim community, the American Red Cross, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), city agencies and even some local businesses.

A major need for families settling into Austin is furniture, said Elder, as many don't have the funds to buy it themselves. "I recently spent time with a woman who received a FEMA check, but she spent it all on buying clothes and school supplies for her high-school-aged son," explained Elder. "The woman said since then, they'd had no cash. So we helped her find some furniture."

Elder added that TIDR just received a recent donation of some household items and the warehouse space to store it all. "We just received 806 beds, 300 sofas and 300 house-ware packages from donors," said Elder, who is also the pastor of Shepherd of the Hill Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

Through monetary donations from the public and a grant from FEMA, TIDR was able to set up a call center and staff it with three employees to take calls from residents in need. The same monetary donations also helped TIDY hire a warehouse manager and assistant. "We've had great luck in this regard," Elder said of the donations.

TIDR also found itself fully immersed in local hurricane relief when Hurricane Rita hit parts of Texas. More evacuees found themselves in Austin, and many were suffering financial difficulties. "Some people got here and then had no money for gas," explained Elder. "Others got no disaster declaration help. We helped get these people some financial assistance."

Elder noted that TIDR has been involved "in a little bit of everything" since they started up, including helping get chaplains on the floor of the Austin convention center during Hurricane Rita and finding jobs for the new Austin residents. Some TIDR members are even helping the new Austin residents get around town, as some were placed in apartments too far away from public transportation. Helping people pay utilities is another facet of TIDR's response.

The interfaith is also helping with an Adopt a Family program like the one started by Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston. "We even have refugee relocation experts helping us because there are so many similarities in this situation," noted Elder.

She is happy with and impressed by how well the residents of Austin have welcomed all the new neighbors, saying that every community has taken a role in helping people settle in. "The community of Austin has been terrific in welcoming evacuees into the various faith communities, too," Elder explained.

"Not all evacuees are Christians - and we have had in this effort the Jewish community, the Muslim community - everybody. On the convention floor we had Quakers, Baha'i, evangelicals, liberals and more. These new folks are being welcomed and invited into the various faith communities. Finding a church or faith home helps get people into the community."

Those Katrina survivors who remain in Austin are still moving through a range of emotions, Elder added. Some are angry, some are frustrated, and others are happy to be slowly getting back into normal life as they find jobs and housing. Through it all, Elder said she hopes TIDR is able to be there whenever the new residents need it.

"They are becoming Austinites," she said. "We welcome all these people with open arms. We'll do all we can in our power to help them move forward in their lives."

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