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Rebuilding one house at a time

Volunteers rebuild Texas communities damaged by Hurricane Rita in 2005.


Loye Kemp was hoping for some downtime to finish some paperwork the day after Christmas.

Kemp, the construction superintendent for Lutheran Social Services in Port Arthur, Texas, thought he'd have a quiet day to catch up on some administrative chores as he tries to help those still affected by the aftermath of Hurricane Rita.

Other staff members were home for the holidays, and for a day he was hoping for some much needed time to keep his paperwork on track.

But then he got a call from the police about a widow with 10 children, whose home still suffers from roof and foundation problems brought on by the hurricane, which slammed into the coast more than two years ago.

"It has been two years later, and she has not received any help," said Kemp, a retired building inspector in Port Arthur.

Kemp turned the call over to a caseworker, who will process the widow's need for help to a construction crew.

"Sooner or later (we will help her)," said Kemp. "I'm still working on it."

As federal funds wait to be distributed, members of the Southeast Texas Interfaith Organization (SETIO) are trying to help homeowners in the Port Arthur and Beaumont areas keep a solid foundation under buildings and a roof over their heads.

"The federal money is in Texas, but it hasn't gotten down here," said Angela Baker, executive director of Rita Recovery. "We said in the beginning, whether we got a dime for this, we'd get through this hurricane."

And they are getting through it - one house at a time.

Many of the people being helped by SETIO crews, under Kemp's supervision, in Port Arthur include the elderly, widowed, disabled or single parents who earn much less a $1,000-a-month.

"There is no way they could afford a new home," he said.

The Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs (TDHCA), found that more than 75,000 Texas homes were destroyed or suffered major damage from Hurricane Rita and more than half of them were uninsured

In a November report to the TDHCA board, 4,200 households have applied for funding during the first round of federal funding, including more than 1,300 in the cities of Beaumont and Port Arthur.

During the first round of funding, about $40 million, the TDHCA charged three regional councils of government with distributing the funds as grants for home repairs. Those needing emergency repairs could get a grant up to $35,000. Homeowners who needed a major rehabilitation could receive a grant up to $65,000 and grants up to $135,000 were available for the reconstruction of new homes.

TDHCA attached regulations to the grants to guard against homeowner fraud and by September of 2007, a year after round one was established, only 13 families were back in their homes with funds provided by the three regional government councils. Three months later, by December 13, 2007, after community pressure and negative press reports, the councils of governments were able to qualify 284 families as assistance and help return 44 more families to mobile and stick-built homes.

But for a fraction of the reconstruction costs, SETIO-affiliation members have been helping homeowners with home repairs so their houses meet the required building code regulations for occupancy.

"Ultimately, it means you tear down a house or build a new one. We think the standard should be to get back safe and livable," said Harland Merrimam, pastor of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Beaumont, a SETIO member.

Local and national disaster recovery organizations including Catholic Charities, Christian Reformed World Relief Committee, Disciples of Christ, Lutheran Social Services, Lutheran Disaster Response, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and United Methodist Committee On Relief are helping SETIO repair homes.

About a quarter million dollars worth of donations have been gathered to fund crews that have been helping fix the foundations, roofs, plumbing and electrical services needed to get a homeowner back home.

"They are probably going to spend $120,000, and we do it for $20,000," said Merrimam.

In December, "final nail" ceremonies were conducted with three homeowners who received help from these work crews.

While interfaith groups seek funds from denominational organizations to help with immediate needs, a second round of federal funding, worth $428 million, has been earmarked for recovery efforts.

SETIO members have urged the TDHCA to work off a case list established by the organization - instead of creating a new one that might anger and confuse those still waiting for assistance from round one.

"Two years later, there will be families with tattered blue roofs on their houses," said Joe Higgs, of SETIO.

In a report prepared by SETIO, it has been noted that a program manager had been identified by TDHCA in August to help with the transition of the SETIO's caseloads to round two funding, which has not begun.

But as time passes and there's further deterioration of existing structures, Higgs and others at SETIO worry whether funding from round two will help enough people.

"The movement is to demolish homes and rebuild them," said Higgs. "The problem is that when you spend more per house, you'll serve fewer people."

SETIO volunteer crews, however, have proven that money can be spent properly and effectively by bringing existing homes back to the specified building codes mandated by the federal government.

"We are repairing them to the federal standards that are required," said Higgs. "Are we using federal resources as efficiently and effectively as possible?"

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