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Thousands of Texans hit hard

Many of the 7,000 in southern TX who need aid do not qualify for federal assistance

BY PJ HELLER | McALLEN, TX | August 29, 2008

"But there is a truly renewed hope that is spreading through many organizations. . .there's a true sense that the community wants to respond as community."

—Harvey Howell, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance

Long-term recovery efforts for thousands of south Texas residents affected by Hurricane Dolly were ramping up as officials kept a close eye on another storm which could slam the state.

At the same time, officials planning the long-term recovery efforts in Cameron, Hidalgo and Willacy counties added a fourth adjacent county — Starr — to their job list following extensive flooding there from a separate storm a few weeks after Dolly made landfall.

Initial reports said some 750 homes in Starr County were flooded when 13 inches of rain fell on the area. Latest estimates say the number of homes affected could climb to 1,400.

Meantime, officials were nervously eying Tropical Storm Gustav, which was forecast to regain hurricane strength, possibly becoming a Category 3 storm, as it moves into the Gulf of Mexico and heads for the U.S. coast. Predictions were the storm could make landfall on Labor Day anywhere from the Florida Panhandle to the upper Texas coast, with many fearing that it could crash into New Orleans nearly three years to the day after Hurricane Katrina. The storm has been blamed for at least 23 deaths in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

"Wherever it comes, its going to come with a big wallop," predicted Harvey Howell, a national response team member with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) who has been working on the Dolly recovery efforts.

Texas officials warned that Gustav "presents a clear and present danger" to the state's coast. Landfall in Louisiana could also mean some 45,000 evacuees coming to Texas, they said, noting that they were simultaneously planning for a strike of Category 3 to 5 hurricane or handling tens of thousands of evacuees from Louisiana.

In the Texas counties hit by Dolly, more than 32,000 people have applied for assistance through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Dolly made landfall July 23 as a Category 2 hurricane with winds of 100 mph.

In the impoverished Spanish-speaking areas known as the colonias, an estimated 6,400 people in need of assistance are not expected to qualify for FEMA help, according to aid workers. They are not believed to have applied for government aid.

Case management training was being offered this week by the United Methodist Committee on Relief. Sessions were being held at the First United Methodist Church in McAllen and at Loaves and Fishes of the Rio Grande Valley, a mission group in Harlingen.

Recovery could take up to two years, according to both Tom Brownmiller, co-leader of the Mission Presbytery Hurricane Dolly task force and Susan Hellums, disaster response coordinator for the McAllen district of the United Methodist Church.

"My personal opinion is this is going to go on for a very long time," Howell added. "It is going to be a long time but there are plans in the works."

Volunteer work teams from the First Presbyterian Church in San Antonio, for instance, are expected to be in the area by late October or early November once the long-term recovery committee develops plans to coordinate those work teams, Howell said.

"The biggest thing we're going to need are volunteers to help with the rebuilds and funding to buy supplies," Brownmiller said.

He said one of the issues to be addressed is FEMA's policy of returning a damaged home to its original condition.

"Since a lot of homes were substandard to begin with, it's not really solving the problem," Brownmiller said. "I think that's where you're going to see more unmet needs."

Officials have been meeting since Aug. 5 to hammer out details of the long-term recovery committee, which is being reorganized and reactivated from one created about five years ago for Hildago County. Final approval of that committee — Faith Communities for Disaster Recovery — is expected next week. Included will be an unmet needs committee, Hellums noted.

Howell is optimistic that once the committee is established that it will move quickly to get the recovery under way.

"There are some very passionate people who are locally down there who are going to build this long-term recovery organization to really go do some serious good work," he said. "Not that this hasn’t happened in the past. But there is a truly renewed hope that is spreading through many organizations. Instead of just one group wanting to go it alone, there's a true sense that the community wants to respond as community."

In the meantime, numerous faith- and community-based groups have been doing what they can to lend a hand to affected residents.

Among them: Adventist Community Services, which has established a distribution center for items such as emergency clothing; Texas Baptist Men, who have been helping residents put tarps on their damaged roofs; and Catholic Social Services, which has set up a toll-free number for residents for assistance and has also been working with residents in the colonias. PDA also brought in a bilingual national response team member from Puerto Rico to help Spanish-speaking residents. Other faith-based groups working in the area include Lutheran Social Services, LDS, the Southern Baptist Convention and the Tzu-Chi Foundation.

In addition to flooding in Texas, the remnants of Dolly also caused flooding in New Mexico, where a federal disaster declaration was issued for Lincoln and Otero counties to provide assistance to state and local governments. Individual assistance was not being provided.

Federal disaster declarations providing individual assistance have already been issued for Cameron, Hidalgo and Willacy counties in Texas and a request to add Starr County has been sent to federal officials.

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