'We could use volunteers'

The devastating 2004 hurricanes are no longer headline news - but long-term recovery is still quietly unfolding for thousands of people.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | February 11, 2006

"One of the great things that has happened is that the community has brought back the neighbor-help-neighbor concept."

—Mary Bolin

The devastating 2004 hurricanes are no longer headline news - but long-term recovery is still quietly unfolding for thousands of people.

In the sparsely populated southeast Georgia swamplands, the Rev. Barbara Gibson has witnessed some remarkable comebacks. Gibson, coordinator of Relying on Interfaith Volunteers Engaged in Recovery (RIVER), is known by many hurricane survivors simply as "Pastor Barb," the cheerful woman who has walked and waited beside them, month after month.

"There's a gentleman who lives on the river still, and his home was completely destroyed during the 2004 hurricane season," said Gibson. "He had just had massive open heart surgery. There was nothing he could do to work or help. He and his wife lived in a fishing shack for 14 months. When I met the man - I dealt mostly with his wife, he had his hands in his pockets, and those hands had formed fists. His eyes were steel, and his jaw was clenched."

But Gibson shook the man's hand and told him he was going to get a new home. A few months ago - just before Thanksgiving - she made good on that promise. "The man wept like a baby," said Gibson, who starts crying herself when she realizes aloud why she'll always be involved in long-term disaster recovery.

"It's one thing to tell people about God's love," she said. "It's quite something else when God uses you to demonstrate the love God has for all people."

It has been 18 months since Hurricane Charley rammed its way across Florida - followed by Frances, Ivan and Jeanne. Though Florida bore the brunt of the storms, many states were affected.

Over the past 18 months, people have discovered simple friendships are a vital part of recovery, said Mary Bolin, who helps lead the Brevard County Long-Term Recovery Coalition on Florida's east coast.

"One of the great things that has happened is that the community has brought back the neighbor-help-neighbor concept," reflected Bolin. "These are people who before only waved to each other. This recovery got people back out in the community to have neighbor-to-neighbor relationships. I think that is the best thing that ever happened. And I would know - because I was one of those people who would only wave to my neighbors before."

As recovery boils down to a personal level, new needs surface, she added. "There was an elderly lady who had some unmet needs she never told anybody about. But her neighbors got to know her. We have brought her out more and we've connected her to some agencies that can help."

Long-term recovery depends on another sort of neighbor, too, said responders - volunteers who help repair and rebuild homes.

In Pine Island - along Florida's west coast - residents could use even more volunteer help than they're getting, said Jill Davidson, office administrator of Beacon of Hope, an interfaith long-term recovery group. "The churches are great for letting churches in the other states know that we do need help. But we could use more volunteers here to help with roofs - especially metal roofing, and with drywall. Some of these houses have been leaking for 18 straight months."

What's most difficult this far out from the disaster itself is finding a way to fund the behind-the-scenes components that keep long-term recovery groups alive: the overhead and the people. "We've been able to get grants to help fund repairs on the homes but our money is a little low for the overhead and for paying two of our employees' salaries here," explained Davidson.

It's also hard to find affordable housing, pointed out Bolin, who cited it as the biggest need in her county. "There are still a lot of people who need homes. There are still a lot of homes under repair. And finding affordable rental properties - that's half the battle."

Slogging away in this most unglamorous, lengthy part of recovery can be, as Gibson put it, "spiritually exhausting."

But it's also a time when responders reflect back on colleagues who went an extra mile - sometimes breaking a few rules - to help hurricane survivors. Charlton County in southeast Georgia did not receive a federal disaster declaration for hurricane damage, said Gibson - even after faith-based groups advocated for one.

Yet, she said, she witnessed dedicated Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) field staff stay beyond their officially assigned time just trying to help. "FEMA folks broke their own policies," she said. "They overstayed their time to get people connected with opportunities. I won't use names, but the gal working with us kept helping, even while she was saying: 'I really have to go, I really have to go.'"

Gibson saw the same dedication from the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, she added, "and I watched local emergency management people take money out of their own pockets to help."

But, Gibson added, getting a hurricane survivor to accept help is another matter altogether.

One man received a new trailer but has yet to open the door, she said. "This gentleman is a river man. He said: 'I take what the river gets. There's no such thing as a free meal.' He can't deal with it, even though I have assured him there are no strings. He still won't sign the ownership papers."

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