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Rita summit focuses on ongoing needs

Organizations discuss how to help people still struggling in southeast Texas.

BY HEATHER MOYER | BEAUMONT, Texas | May 4, 2007

"There are many who think we've recovered fully from Hurricane Rita here in southeast Texas. There are an awful lot of people who have not recovered. We know of people who are still using a garden hose for their water supply."

With those words, the Rev. Harland Merriam kicked off a Hurricane Rita summit in Beaumont on Thursday. More than 100 people representing local and national disaster response agencies along with federal, state and local government officials attended. They hoped to raise awareness about the remaining needs from the hurricane, to learn more about ways to help the thousands still in need and to network with each other.

"We hope to have a conversation here that can help us solve problems," said Joe Higgs of the Southeast Texas Interfaith Organization (SETIO).

Long-term recovery agencies covering the 22 affected counties are handling more than 1,000 cases, but estimates from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and others show that thousands more still need assistance.

"For every one of those who have recovered so far, there are three, five or 10 others who have not," said Merriam, pastor of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Beaumont and a member SETIO. "These are perhaps the most difficult months ahead of us."

In Hardin, Jefferson and Orange counties, more than 1,055 FEMA temporary trailers are in use. Long-term recovery organizations have repaired more than 900 homes in the three counties, a FEMA official said.

"That's just a drop in the bucket, though, compared to what needs to be done," said Richard Bradley, a FEMA voluntary agency liaison.

Recovery organizations worry that counties further inland are not getting the assistance and attention needed.

"Our long-term recovery organizations have little to no funds and we have little support in our communities," said Amber Stewart, client recovery specialist for the American Red Cross Hurricane Recovery Program which covers Angelina, Sabine, San Augustine and Nacogdoches counties.

Those counties face additional challenges because they are rural areas with many elderly and low-income families - a common theme among such inland counties.

Others echoed Stewart's sentiment.

"Most of our families are 'out in the sticks' - and that can mean out of sight, out of mind," said Willard Moody of the Polk County Long-Term Recovery Organization.

Organizations are also concerned that many people are not coming forward for help because they either do not know what is available or they have literacy issues that would make the recovery process even more difficult.

"We've found that a lot of senior citizens won't ask for help," said FEMA's Bradley. "It's very important that we watch over these vulnerable populations."

Kitty Key of the Sabine Pass Organization for Disaster Relief said lack of resources and volunteers delays the response to families on its list, and many have moved on thinking they will never get help.

"We need renewed hope," Key said. "My folks are heartsick, but it doesn't take much to bring them back to life. I hope this summit will bring help."

Other organizations are finding more and more people seeking help for the first time. Some residents have tried to repair their homes with what they had, but insufficient resources left gaps in the repairs.

What were once repairs that totaled $5,000 are now $50,000 repairs as homes have sat exposed to the elements since Rita hit, one summit attendee said.

Organizations report finding people living in substandard conditions in their homes since they have no other place to go.

"How many of you still have people living in parts of their homes, and in homes that still have water coming into them?" Higgs asked the attendees.

A majority raised their hands in response.

Also at the meeting, the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs explained its community development block grant distribution process, which will extend $220 million to clients of the long-term recovery organizations in southeast Texas.

Some lamented how long the grant process takes and the red tape involved. Others, however, urged patience and promised assistance in locating more resources for affected residents.

"We have to be committed to work together to make this happen," said Tom Hazelwood, executive secretary for the United Methodist Committee on Relief. "This feels like it takes forever - people need help yesterday and not six months from now."

Other speakers discussed successes and challenges of their recoveries. They shared information on case management and recruiting volunteer work teams.

Andy Narramore, executive director of Nehemiah's Vision, stressed the importance of seeking local volunteers.

"People all over the U.S. want to come to help, and that lets us know that there are people in our own neighborhoods that we need to get doing that," Narramore said. "The people in our own communities are the ones who are going to make a difference, too."

Stephanie Lundgreen, a case management specialist for Rita Recovery, said she has spoken at churches to spread the word about the needs and encouraged others to do the same.

"You need to tell the story so people don't forget," she said. "I get calls everyday from people who think God forgot about them because it's still raining in their house."

She added that being well-organized and always having projects for volunteers - local and out-of-towners and long- and short-term - is crucial for success.

Another speaker advocated petitioning local unions to donate their time to the recovery as well as organizing "weekend warrior" work teams for local groups.

Attendees said they would hold a meeting in the next month or two to train more long-term recovery organization case workers on the Coordinated Assistance Network case management system. They also agreed to work together to seek more funding sources and to work closely with Housing and Community Affairs on its funding distribution.

Organizers also encouraged attendees to stay in touch with each other as resources. Merriam said he received positive feedback about the meeting.

"I hear people saying that this a good thing, but that doesn't mean a thing unless we do something in the next months to make it worth being here," he said.

As families continue coming forward for help, Jeannie Mills of the American Red Cross Hurricane Recovery Program said she hoped resources would be available to those most in need.

"We've just touched the tip of the iceberg," Mills said. "There are still so many out there that we haven't reached."

The 22 counties recovering from Rita are Shelby, Nacogdoches, San Augustine, Sabine, Angelina, Trinity, Tyler, Jasper, Newton, Poly, Orange, Hardin, San Jacinto, Walker, Liberty, Jefferson, Chambers, Harris, Brazoria, Galveston, Fort Bend and Montgomery.

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More links on Disaster Recovery

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Related Links:

Southeast Texas Interfaith Organization

Rita Recovery

Church World Service Hurricane Rita Summit press release

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