Dolly causes heartache for many

More than a week later, 1,500 homes are still flooded and crop damage is said to be staggering as responders continue to try to reach all the survivors.

BY PJ HELLER | MCALLEN, Texas | August 5, 2008

STILL FLOODED -- More than a thousand homes are still flooded in the wake of Hurricane Dolly that destroyed crops and damaged homes of many impoverished Texas residents.
Credit: Amy BeVille Elder, Texas Interagency Interfaith Disaster Response

More than one week after Hurricane Dolly made landfall in southern Texas, an estimated 1,500 homes remain flooded and response workers have yet to reach some of the affected residents.

"There are still people we haven't made contact with. There are still flooded homes that we can't get to. We are still responding and at the same time we are trying to move into recovery as fast as we can," said Harvey Howell, a national response team member with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA).

The ongoing response efforts come as attention has shifted from impoverished areas hard-hit by Dolly to Tropical Storm Edouard, which came ashore Tuesday morning along the upper Texas Gulf Coast.

"I know what it's like once you're dealing with one (disaster) and another disaster happens, and everybody forgets about the one before," said Randi Fertitta, director of disaster, trauma and loss with Catholic Charities in Beaumont, Texas. "It's a hard battle."

Faith and community-based organizations were working to assist residents in a multi-county area affected by Dolly, which made landfall July 23 as a Category 2 hurricane with winds of 100 mph. The storm caused damages estimated at upwards of $750 million.

Among the hardest hit areas were the colonias, economically depressed communities in the region.

"A lot of these homes are in very impoverished areas, so people have limited resources and will need a lot of additional support, whether through case management or through other organizations," Fertitta said.

Most of the residents are non-English speaking and are reluctant to come forward for government assistance, according to response personnel in the region.

Individual assistance was made available late last week for residents in three counties — Cameron, Hidalgo and Willacy — after President Bush upgraded federal disaster declarations for those areas. Bush had initially declared 15 counties in Texas as disaster areas.

Howell said 9,229 people had applied for federal assistance as of noon Monday.

The storm also wiped out nearly all of the cotton crop in the lower Rio Grande Valley, Citrus and corn crops were also heavily damaged.

"The crop loss in south Texas is huge and the economic impact that it's going to have on many of the families we deal with is something that we're going to have to look at long term," said Tom Hazelwood of the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR).

PDA, Catholic Charities, Week of Compassion, Lutheran Disaster Response and UMCOR were among the numerous faith-based organizations that were already responding to the Dolly disaster. A meeting was scheduled Tuesday afternoon to bring together various groups into an interfaith-type long-term response organization.

Howell said the groups were already working well together.

"Everyone who is down here and is responding to this — including the governor (Texas Gov. Rick Perry) on today's conference call — is applauding the wonderful interfaith, interagency response at all levels," he said. "The spirit of cooperation is truly being felt in many, many places. God is clearly at work but there is a lot of work yet to do."

Even with the mucking out and cleanup that will be required, Fertitta warned that other serious concerns may be ahead, particularly health issues.

A week ago we drove to sites that were heavier hit and people were still living in their homes," she said. "There was water in their homes. There was water up to their knees from their home to the road. They were walking around in the water. It was contaminated water. A lot of people are fearful to go other places and they don't want to leave their homes.

"What are going to be the health ramifications of this?" she asked. "A few weeks down the line what are we going to find out? The mosquitoes are horrendous and people are wading in contaminated water. It's kind of scary to think what may come from that."

Exactly how long recovery efforts would take remained a question, as assessments and cleanup continued.

"It will probably be months that we'll be working with families to help them develop a recovery plan and work through what they need," Fertitta predicted. "There's a large population here that will need additional support services for months to come."

"I think the cleanup will go on for several more weeks and then we'll move toward long-term recovery," Hazelwood said.

UMCOR had early response teams in the region and had shipped about 700 flood buckets to the area.

"It is very early," Howell agreed. "The people are down here but we don't have a handle on the assessments yet."

In addition to response and recovery, there was also the language barrier with which to contend.

PDA was among the organizations working to address that issue. Among its efforts, Howell reported, was bringing in a bilingual national response team member from Puerto Rico.

Meantime, pastors from 21 Presbytery churches in affected areas met Monday morning to form a task force to complete assessments on churches and congregations and to attend Tuesday's initial interfaith meeting. Two members of the task force speak Spanish, Howell said, adding that there were several Hispanic Presbyterian churches in the region.

Fertitta said the various disasters which have hit the U.S., including flooding across the Midwest, have strained the resources of voluntary organizations.

"There definitely is a need for financial donations, but there's also a need for volunteers as well," she said.

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