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'Devastated' NW starts drying out

Damage assessments planned or under way by faith-based groups to determine response in Pacific Northwest coastal areas. President declares 11 counties major disaster areas.

BY NANCY HOGLAND | PORTLAND, Ore. | December 8, 2007

Residing in the Pacific Northwest has been likened by residents there to living in heaven. Over the past few days, according to one disaster response coordinator, it has become like living in hell.

"It's devastating," said Noreen Goplen, coordinator for the Lutheran Northwest Disaster Response Team, referring to the massive flooding, mudslides and hurricane force winds which battered the coastal areas.

The back-to-back storms which pummeled the region earlier in the week left at least eight people dead, flooded an untold number of homes and businesses, knocked out telephone and electric services and forced the shutdown of numerous roads including Interstate 5 which links Seattle and Portland. Preliminary damage estimates for Washington alone have been put at nearly $1 billion.

"I've been working disasters in the Northwest since the floods of '96 and I've never seen anything like this," said Goplen, who also serves as head of the Oregon Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters. "We're looking at much heavier losses this time."

Goplen described the damages as "extreme."

"We've sent teams in today to start assessing the destruction and so far, the reports are not good," she said. "Acres and acres of trees have been blown down in mass. They've fallen on houses and power lines or they're just laying on the ground like matchsticks. Power is out, which means there is no heat. People were trying to stay warm in their cars but as they ran out of gas, they couldn't get more because electricity is required to run the gas pumps."

She said roofs were blown off homes by the powerful winds or the homes were inundated by floodwaters.

"When the winds reached 129 mph, many of the recording facilities were destroyed so we don't even know what the highest wind speed was," she said. "But whatever the speed, the damage is extreme."

Water has receded from the roads, she said, but travel was still difficult due to the fact the roads were covered with debris or had been damaged. Interstate 5, which had been shut down because portions of it were under water, finally reopened Friday afternoon.

As soon as towns were accessible, Goplen said, faith-based organizations including Adventists and The Salvation Army sent volunteers into the field to set up shelters and meet emergency needs. Two national response teams from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance were deployed to Washington and Oregon to assist in recovery efforts and were scheduled to arrive Saturday.

Episcopal Relief and Development said it would support relief efforts as soon as needs have been identified and prioritized. Assessments were being conducted by the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia and of Oregon.

Mennonite Disaster Service said it also had an assessment team in western Washington and would be determining volunteer needs in the coming weeks.

Church World Service, meantime, said it would provide material resources if requested by its disaster response partners and denominations.

"CWS will continue to monitor for potential responses, including training for leaders of emerging long-term recovery organizations and special project initiatives in partnership with local human service agencies," it said.

In Vernonia, Ore., a small town located in the coastal mountain range between Portland and Seaside, church leaders were scrambling to take care of their parishioners while also dealing with flooding in their own churches.

The Rev. Gary Taylor of the Nahlem Valley Bible Church said that while the full extent of the damage was not yet known, it was widespread.

"We were told at a town hall meeting yesterday that 500 homes were affected," he said. "In a town of 2,400, that's pretty extensive."

The town's three schools - elementary, middle and high school - were destroyed. "Wiped out," Taylor said.

"We're in the process of deciding whether to rebuild or relocate to higher ground, which is what most of the townspeople are talking about doing," he said.

Taylor said that while the damage appears extensive, the response from other churches outside the area has been bigger.

"Supplies have been arriving by the truckload," he said. "Water is being rationed, which we understand will end in three to four days, but in the meantime, churches and faith-based groups are bringing in loads of bottled water. Food is coming in and scores of volunteers are calling to see what they can do.

"It's very gratifying to see how many people want to help," he added.

Linda Johnston, a volunteer at Vernonia's Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, agreed.

"As soon as emergency shelters were set up, church members started bringing in food," she said. "There's a massive food bank set up downtown. Our church has been preparing meals for people to come in and eat, or, if requested, we deliver meals to those who need them.

"While some people had time to grab a few things before they fled, many others had to be rescued by National Guardsmen in boats and they have nothing left, so a clothes bank has been set up for them," Johnston said. "The churches are seeing to it that every need is being met."

Neil Molenaar, a member of the Washington VOAD, said his organization was busy Thursday assessing damage in Lewis County, located in southwest Washington, in order to meet needs in that area. Lewis County, along with Grays Harbor County, were among the hardest hit areas in Washington.

"We're trying to take a proactive stance in an attempt to be more organized," Molenaar said. "Instead of waiting until people contact us, we're sending teams of volunteers out to contact homeowners to determine what they need and whether their damage is moderate or severe.

"They're also making an estimate of what equipment and how many volunteers will be needed to repair the damage, and finally the time that will be involved to see the project through to completion," he said.

Once the information is compiled, the organization will be able to better schedule faith-based groups of volunteers to help with cleanup and reconstruction, he said.

Goplen said that if President Bush declares the region a federal disaster area, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will be able to assist residents in the recovery.

"Once FEMA comes into the picture, they will publish an 800 number where people can register," she said. "Then we'll have a better handle on how much damage we're looking at and how much help we'll need to recover."

Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire has asked Bush to declare Lewis and Grays Harbor counties federal disaster areas and said other counties would be added as damage assessments were completed. Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski also asked Bush for an expedited federal declaration of emergency for the state. He said the counties of Clatsop, Columbia, Lincoln, Tillamook and Yamhill had been "critically impacted."

Bush on Saturday issued federal disaster declarations for the five Oregon counties as well as six counties in Washington: Grays Harbor, Kitsap, Lewis, Mason, Pacific and Thurston. The declarations only provide relief for state and local governments and do not provide assistance for individuals. One day later, Bush approved individual assistance for residents in Columbia and Tillamook counties in Oregon and Grays Harbor and Lewis counties in Washington.

"In the meantime," Goplen said, "we're already hearing from scores of groups who are putting together teams to come up and help. I just received a call from a group in Mississippi. We had sent a team down there to help after Katrina. Now they want to come up here and help us.

"Immediately following a disaster like this, the future can look a little bleak," Goplen said. "However, when you start getting calls like that, it brightens up the entire picture."

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