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Recovery under way in Pacific NW

Damage in some areas more widespread and extensive than originally expected.

BY NANCY HOGLAND | SEATTLE | December 13, 2007

Recovery efforts are under way in the Pacific Northwest after hurricane-force winds earlier this month toppled acres of trees and torrential rainfall caused massive flooding that ripped out bridges, buckled pavement and inundated homes with up to 25 feet of water.

In some cases, there is nothing to recover.

"One farmer alone lost $1 million worth of dairy cows and equipment. He spent his life developing his business and now it's all gone. How can you recover from a loss like that," asked Stan Wyse, treasurer and volunteer with Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) of Washington.

"Sadly, his story is just one of many," Wyse said.

Wyse and others from a wide range of faith-based organizations have spent the past few days assessing the destruction caused by back-to-back storms that ravaged coastal areas in Washington and Oregon. At least eight people were killed.

Preliminary findings indicate that damage is more widespread and extensive than originally expected.

A long-time volunteer with the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia, a branch of Episcopal Relief and Development, said that while the state has experienced many emergencies in the past, he can't remember being faced with anything this widespread.

"I don't think we've ever seen anything of this scale in this area. It almost qualifies as a catastrophe," said David Baylor, who also serves as the diocese's representative on the Washington Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster.

"This event even wiped out public services, which has made it even harder to respond," he said. "In some towns, they've had to establish emergency operating headquarters from scratch because even municipal police and fire departments have been flooded."

Baylor said volunteers in his organization have been so busy responding to the needs of the community that they have not had time to consider long-term rebuilding.

"The old adage, 'When you're up to your neck in alligators, you forget about draining the swamp,' aptly applies to this event," he said. "However, now that volunteers are starting to come in, we'll be able to start focusing on what needs to be done to get these people back into their homes."

United Methodists in the region have been helping find shelter for some of the families left homeless due to the storm.

Following appeals from the governors of both states, President Bush issued federal disaster declarations for Clatsop, Columbia, Lincoln, Tillamook and Yamhill counties in Oregon and for Grays Harbor, Kitsap, Lewis, Mason, Pacific and Thurston counties in Washington. 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. More counties may be added later.

The move allowed the Federal Emergency Management Agency to set up operations at the scene, establish an 800-number for people to register for assistance and bring in emergency supplies of food, medicine and other items. It also set in motion a program where individuals can meet one-on-one with caseworkers who will review their circumstances and then help them line up assistance and low-interest federal loans.

Uninsured households are eligible for up to $28,800 in reimbursements. The assistance is available to renters, homeowners and businesses that suffered storm-related damage.

More than 1,600 people in Lewis and Grays Harbor counties, two of the areas hardest hit, have applied for federal disaster relief money since Sunday, according to the latest reports.

Bobb Barnes, a volunteer with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA), who is primarily working in the Tacoma, Wash., area, said his team has found about 300 homes that were destroyed.

"Because many of these areas are very rural - just a few houses grouped together and not really part of any municipality - we're finding more and more as we go," Barnes said. "Tuesday we just discovered a couple more coastal communities without electricity."

The Tacoma area was also where Interstate 5, which links Seattle and Portland, was covered with water.

Sue Hyde, also with PDA but assisting communities in the Portland area, described damage there as "significant.

"People either got hit by hurricane-strength winds or they were flooded out," Hyde said. "It's really a mess."

She said volunteers were badly needed during the week to help with cleanup that includes shoveling out thick layers of mud and ripping out damaged walls.

"There were lots of people here over the weekend - so many that we were stumbling over each other," Hyde said. "What we really need is groups of people who can come in for the day and help clean up. A huge dump has been established where things like water-soaked drywall can be disposed of."

The Emergency Response Program of Church World Service (CWSERP), an interfaith disaster relief organization, issued an appeal Wednesday for emergency response specialists to lead training in Washington and Oregon.

"Our job is to equip and empower people to help with long-term recovery," said Matt Hackworth, communications officer for CWSERP. "We provide strategies and mentoring to help them stay on the job and see it through to the end. It can be a monumental task, but with guidance and support, the volunteers can stay with it to help their communities return to normalcy."

Wyse said MDS would welcome help from church members who live in close proximity to affected areas.

"The next step will be to set up housing for volunteers, but that hasn't happened yet, so right now we just need day workers," he said.

In the meantime, he and another volunteer with MDS planned to return Thursday to begin gutting a house damaged by flood waters.

"And we could use anyone who would like to lend a hand," he added.

Wyse warned that cold temperatures will make work conditions less than ideal.

"Thursday's forecast calls for highs in the low 40s and lows in the mid 30s," he said. "While the electric has been restored to the area, a lot of these people are scared to turn the power back on to their homes because of all the moisture in the walls, so it'll be cold.

"But that's exactly why we need to get this taken care," he added. "They need to get the heat back on."

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