Churches help Rita survivors

"One night in our back parking lot, I watched Methodist men pumping charismatic gas into Baptist chainsaws, getting ready for the next day of work cutting down Pentecostal trees - that's the way the church ought to be working."

BY HEATHER MOYER | NEWTON, Texas | February 16, 2006

"This does take time, resources are slow."

—Lee Holbert

"One night in our back parking lot, I watched Methodist men pumping charismatic gas into Baptist chainsaws, getting ready for the next day of work cutting down Pentecostal trees - that's the way the church ought to be working."

That's how the Rev. Charles Burchett sums up the the disaster recovery process in Texas after Hurricane Rita.

He laughs when he says it, but adds that it is completely true. Burchett is the pastor of First Baptist Church in Kirbyville, Texas, and also the board chair of Citizens Organized for Rita Restoration (CORR).

CORR is an interfaith long-term recovery committee helping Hurricane Rita survivors in Newton and Jasper counties. The interfaith formed last fall with help from several organizations, including Church World Service.

While leaders from CORR agree that cooperation amongst the interfaith's members has gone very well, they also agree that much more help is needed.

CORR Director Lee Holbert said both Newton and Jasper counties were already impoverished counties before Rita hit. The hurricane just compounded everyone's need. And so CORR caseworkers are meeting with new clients every day, working to assess and meet the needs of survivors. "We want to provide for the unmet needs of low- to moderate-income families," said Holbert.

CORR members not only hope to refer families to the right organizations for what they need, but they also hope to provide the labor for much of the housing needs in both counties. Holbert knows that's a huge task. "Getting that much labor is a big need," said Holbert, who also heads the non-profit Self-Help Housing.

A boost to the recovery effort since October has been regular work teams from Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS). More than 150 MDS volunteers have come through since then. "We first started with tree-clearing back in mid-October and then started helping with the rebuild process shortly after the first of the year," said Phil Maneikis, site leader for the MDS operation in Newton.

Maniekis said their home work so far has involved everything from patching roofs, to completely redoing roofs, to tearing out damaged material from inside the home.

He added that MDS works with church donations and any insurance or FEMA money the survivors might receive, focusing on those families in the most need.

Holbert said that with CORR's resources being so scarce at the time - he is very grateful for MDS' hard work. CORR's Unmet Needs Committee has roughly $30,000 to work with presently, leaving everyone hoping for more donations to support the recovery.

"We need money to hire contractors - we can't do it all with volunteers," explained Holbert. "Then there's money needed for building materials. And then we also need money for administrative costs. I haven't drawn a salary since the storm and I'm blessed I can do that. But I can't do it forever.

"My non-profit corporation is paying for (CORR's) rent, our internet, phone lines, printers, computers and more. We could sure use some administrative funds. I know a lot of people are interested in their monetary donations going directly to families - but people also need to understand that it does cost money to give directly to the families in need."

CORR has some 300 cases to work on at the moment, but the needs continue to arise. Members of the interfaith offer many resources to the affected families. With the local unemployment rate rising due to slow business re-openings, many families don't have access to health insurance and can't afford health care.

In response, a local Hindu organization and CORR member recently organized a health clinic day. Holbert said the event had some 150 volunteer doctors, nurses and other medical technicians available to families in need of any sort of medical help. "They did all sorts of things - eye exams, dental exams, diabetes screenings and more," he said.

Other good stories are emerging from the recovery process as well. Holbert said help is coming in from all over the country - and one agency in Indiana even built a brand new home for one woman.

"It's the only home we've built from scratch so far - and it's quite a connection," explained Holbert. "The son of a woman whose trailer was destroyed down here - he lives in Indiana and is married to a woman whose parents received a Habitat for Humanity home ten years ago. That family said the Habitat home changed their lives, so they became strong supporters of Habitat. When they heard about their son-in-law, they talked to their Habitat friends."

And so began the connection between the South Bend, Ind., Habitat for Humanity and a woman in eastern Texas. Holbert said the Indiana organization raised funds and built the home mostly in Indiana before bringing it down. Then on January 21, the woman got the keys to her brand new home in a special ceremony that many local and state officials attended. "It's a real touching story of interstate cooperation," noted Holbert.

CORR itself is also good news to more than just those it helps with casework. Several of their employees are survivors of Hurricane Katrina now living in the area. "They're fantastic - and perhaps even more sensitized to the needs of the Rita families," Holbert said.

It's those good points that Holbert and Burchett hold onto during the recovery process. Both said they know that survivors are frustrated with how slowly the process progresses with the government, insurance companies and even CORR itself. "This does take time, resources are slow," explained Holbert. "We don't have much money at our disposal. Our casework also moves slowly because none of us are professional caseworkers for a living. We try to be quicker, but we're in a bind. Contractors are all booked solid now. It's hard for us to hire a crew to just work with our organization."

He added that many families are especially reminded of their state every time it rains. "People are still in a state of shock. Some are still living in tents or just in one room of their house where the roof doesn't leak."

Others remain unemployed because businesses are still closed. Many businesses may never open again, said Holbert. "It's really affected people in very deep and wide-ranging ways."

Burchett said at least the human contact some families get with the volunteer work crews helps, noting that the hands-on work really builds friendships. "The work crews really build relationships with people in need because they're with them on a daily basis," he said.

MDS' Maneikis agreed. "I think what happens is that these families become so shell-shocked because they never expected a disaster like this. They lose heart. But when someone shows an interest in helping them recover, they get very excited. It may encourage them to do some remaining work on their own, too, or join the volunteer crew in their work."

The three remain optimistic about the work ahead, knowing the cooperation amongst the various faith groups, social service agencies and community leaders will continue to move the recovery along. All three spoke of how far the recovery had come since the first few days after Hurricane Rita first struck, noting that progress is being made.

"It feels like we're moving slowly - but we've certainly come a long way," said Holbert.

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