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Faith-based recovery to aid Eagle Pass

Group to help residents expected to "fall through the cracks" in Texas-Mexico border town.

BY P.J. HELLER | EAGLE PASS, Texas | May 19, 2007

A faith-based long-term recovery committee designed to help hundreds of Eagle Pass residents who are not expected to be eligible for government assistance has been created in this impoverished Texas town.

"The faith-based people are trying to help the people who would fall through the cracks," said the Rev. Harlene Sadler of the First United Methodist Church in Eagle Pass.

Sadler estimated that 40 percent of the 440 Maverick County residents who have already registered for assistance with the Federal Emergency Management Agency will be ineligible for aid because they are undocumented. The county has also formed an agency to help affected residents.

Many others who need assistance mostly illegal aliens - are either afraid or unwilling to register with FEMA or with the county government for fear of calling attention to themselves. Most "ebb and flow" across the border with Mexico and often lack any documents, even a utility bill, to prove that they were actually living in the U.S., Sadler said. Many do not speak English.

"They're afraid to go to any government agency," she said. "They will trust the churches, so we're depending on the people who work in their midst to tell them we're OK.

"The people that FEMA can't help and the people that the county agency can't help, those are the people we are going to help," she said. "Our primary concern right now is the undocumented."

FEMA spokesman Franceska Ramos said she was unaware of how many of the 440 applicants had been approved for assistance but noted it was important for people to come forward and not "disqualify themselves."

"It's important for them to know that we don't share that information [immigration status] with other agencies," she said.

She added that a family with a child who was born in the U.S. and was therefore a U.S. citizen could apply for assistance on behalf of their child. If neither was eligible for assistance, she said FEMA could refer the family to other agencies to help meet its basic needs.

Ramos said FEMA has approved some $2 million in disaster housing assistance and other needs assistance in Maverick County, one of four Texas counties under a federal disaster declaration.

The tornado which ripped through the town of 23,000 people on the night of April 24 left seven people dead and destroyed or damaged more than 200 homes, most of them mobile units. Three other people were killed across the border in Piedras Negras, Mexico, where the storm also caused extensive damage. Both communities are extremely poor, Sadler noted.

With the recent formation of the recovery committee, plans are in the works to train case workers and to arrange for coordinators to manage both volunteers coming into the town and construction projects.

Barbara Tripp of the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) was scheduled to conduct case worker training three days next week. She was also expected to train case workers for the county's relief committee, Sadler said.

Sadler's church will serve as headquarters for the volunteers and the coordinators. Sadler was also serving as a liaison to the county group.

A full-fledged effort by the faith-based community to bring volunteers to the town was on hold until case workers could be trained.

"As soon as we have the case workers trained, we'll have a need for volunteers to come in," Sadler said.

She said she expected volunteers would begin arriving the first week in June. A group of 50 volunteers was expected to arrive this weekend from Hill Country Bible Church in Austin, according to the Rev. Felipe Garcia, pastor of Iglesia Bautista Peniel in Eagle Pass.

Despite the delay in bringing in volunteers, Sadler said residents were being helped. A relief fund has been established and a distribution warehouse, recently closed, had been disbursing clothing and other materials.

"It doesn't mean that there are people who aren't being taken care," she said. "Anybody who didn't have a place to live has a place to stay. It doesn't mean that while we are waiting that people are out on the street."

The faith-based group held its second meeting earlier this week. Groups involved in the recovery effort in addition to UMCOR include Catholic Charities, Southern Baptists, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and Lutheran Disaster Response.

Sadler estimated recovery would take one to two years.

"It's going to be long-term," Garcia agreed. "We don't know exactly how long it's going to be because we're just starting. Some people have insurance and they've already started repairing their houses."

However, he said, "Most of the people don't have insurance."

A warehouse distribution center that had been run by The Salvation Army in Eagle Pass has since closed. Sadler said people wanting to donate should consider financial contributions or purchase gift cards that can be redeemed in stores. Garcia said construction materials or money to buy those materials were also needed.

"People don't want to live in trailers," he said. "They want to better themselves . . . to have a better house."

In addition to addressing needs in Eagle Pass, Sadler said her church along with other Methodist groups were also assisting residents in Piedras Negras, especially children who were living in two orphanages there that were destroyed by the tornado. That same area was hit by a flood about three years earlier.

Donations have included 50-pound bags of rice and beans, clothing, shoes, health kits, toys, dishes and pots and pans.

"We're working on both sides of the border," Sadler said. "We don't want the kids to go hungry or without clothes.

"The problem over there is that there's just so much need every day," she said. "It's not like you're doing real well and then you have a catastrophe and you get over the catastrophe and you're doing real well again. It's an ongoing need.

"It's almost hard to say where the need created by the tornado stops and the need in general begins," she said.

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