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Residents struggle after Rita

The emotional toll of Hurricane Rita is becoming more evident everyday, said pastors in southeast Texas.

BY HEATHER MOYER | BEAUMONT, Texas | December 8, 2005

"Some families lost everything twice, and that's very difficult."

—Rev. Jacqui King

The emotional toll of Hurricane Rita is becoming more evident everyday, said pastors in southeast Texas.

When the Rev. Harland Merriam asked one of his parishioners how she was doing the other day, the answer was not as cheery as it used to be.

"I asked, 'How are you?' and it was the first time I ever heard her say, 'I don't know,'" said Merriam, pastor of St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Beaumont, Texas. "That was very telling."

It's been two months since the huge storm slammed into the region and the recovery for many residents is very difficult. "We're under significant stress," he explained. "As a pastor, I've had a big jump in deaths in the past two months. It's a challenge. A lot of us feel beat up pretty bad around here."

Merriam said he's lost four elderly members of his church since Rita hit, and he knows that their already fragile state was significantly compounded by the high stress after the hurricane roared through.

With an estimated 25,000 homes around the region needing significant repair or rebuild help due to hurricane damage, the stress can be overwhelming to residents. Merriam said he's seeing a lot of fear, noting that people are not sure when they will have their homes back to normal - or if they'll even be able to return to the area at all.

To help the thousands of families in need, Merriam is co-chair of the newly formed Southeast Interfaith Disaster Recovery Organization (SIDRO). SIDRO is made up of various faith communities, businesses and community organizations. "We are in the recovery stage, and things are happening," he said. "We are working on the needs from all levels. We're working together across geographical, racial and denominational barriers."

The needs are great across the region, said Joe Higgs, SIDRO's other co-chair. Yet Higgs hopes a network of churches and faith groups already in place will contribute to the recovery in a positive way. Higgs is an organizer for Gulf Coast Interfaith (GCI), an offshoot of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF). Leaders and organizers of IAF offshoots like the GCI "build organizations whose primary purpose is power - the ability to act - and whose chief product is social change."

GCI was already organizing communities across the counties hit very hard by Hurricane Rita - Jefferson, Galveston and Orange counties. Higgs said through the partnership with GCI, SIDRO is helping local towns and communities organize their own recovery process.

"We knew there'd be huge unmet needs, so we're seeing if we can develop a regional disaster recovery organization that will operate over the next three to four years, principally to help people rebuild homes and other resources they need to get their lives back on track," said Higgs. "We're trying to operate at a very local level for certain things, and then at a regional level for others."

Higgs said local communities know what they need the most, and the local communities are embracing that sort of organizing so far.

In Orange, the Rev. Robert Fisher is excited to see so many different groups working together. "All the denominations in Orange have been meeting and figuring out how we can do this together and not duplicate work," said Fisher, pastor of Orange's First United Methodist Church. "It's exciting - but it's a shame that it takes a disaster to get us to realize that it's not about denomination, but helping people in need."

One challenge to the recovery in the region is that so many were impacted by both Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita. "Initially all of our cities were overwhelmed by Katrina," said Higgs. "Then three weeks later we were fleeing, and many could not return for two to three weeks."

The Rev. Jacqui King sees that dual problem amongst her parishioners and community as well. King, the pastor of St. Paul United Methodist Church in Port Arthur, said some Louisiana residents had decided to make the new area their home, only to have to flee from another hurricane several weeks later. "The hurt is beyond what you can see for the families who had a double hurricane. Some families lost everything twice, and that's very difficult."

For the native residents, said King, serving the Katrina evacuees was the mission until they themselves had to get out. "There was a lot of energy going out already, and then two weeks later we were on the other end of it."

King has also lost several elderly members of her church due to the high stress after the hurricane. The emotions amongst the survivors are those of the grieving process, she noted, adding that she is at least encouraged by seeing the community actively grieve and move through the emotions together. King, who is also assisting with SIDRO, said the new partnerships being formed between people of different denominations, backgrounds and ethnicities is one major positive coming out of the destruction.

The recovery will still be a long term challenge, though, she said, as many will have to come to grips with losing their homes and cherished belongings. "The city is going to grieve. City hall said 800 structures could potentially be demolished because they're unsafe. Well, what happens when an elderly church member's name is on that list and she's not comprehending that they're wanting to tear her house down?" King said. "I'm trying to help teach people how to make tough decisions. Change is hard. This takes another kind of nurturing."

The slow process of the recovery thus far is also hard on residents, added King. Families are frustrated about not having a trailer from the Federal Emergency Management Agency yet, she noted, or being put on a waiting list to even get a blue tarp put on their roofs. From there it's a long wait to get a contractor to fix your home - if you can afford it, King said.

The hope is there, though. "I'm seeing an outpouring of a want and desire to help," noted King. "I do see some sadness and tears, and I do see some struggling, but I do see hope. This storm has not killed the spirit here."

A boost to that hope is all the help pouring in from regional and national churches. Merriam and Higgs said SIDRO and the recovery would not be where it was without help from agencies like Church World Service, the United Methodist Committee on Relief, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, Lutheran Disaster Response, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Catholic Charities, and many more.

Higgs said UMCOR will help them hold case management training very soon, and several local churches are offering their own buildings or retreat centers for free to incoming volunteers. He and Merriam are grateful for all the help so far and added that assistance will be needed for a long time. "There is tremendous need," said Higgs.

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