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Organizations plan Ike response

Drawing on experience with Hurricane Rita, response organizations plan long-term recovery for Hurricane Ike survivors

BY PJ HELLER | HOUSTON | September 20, 2008

With experience from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita under their belts, disaster response organizations are hoping to be quickly up and running to help hard-hit Texas residents recover from Hurricane Ike.

"We've got the long-term recovery committees and the local VOADS (Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster) that are already in place," noted Katherine Kerr, a spokesman for Lutheran Social Services of the South. "Everybody knows what their strengths are and what they can offer and what they can bring to the table. We don’t have that learning curve that we did when we were responding to Rita and Katrina."

Nikke Beneke, head of the North Texas Long-Term Recovery Council, agreed that lessons learned in 2005 from Katrina and Rita would allow response groups to do a better job.

"We learned a lot (from Katrina and Rita)" Beneke said. "I believe we have really done much better because of what we learned during that time."

Even so, responders say that the recovery effort is going to require a massive effort that will take years. Further complicating matters is a slowdown in donations, which Kerr and others attributed to both "disaster fatigue" and turmoil in the economy.

At the same time, recovery efforts from Rita and Katrina continue. At a meeting Thursday of the Southeast Texas Interfaith Organization, members agreed to extend their recovery efforts from Rita to include Hurricane Ike.

"It appears the work is going to be as much, or more, than we had for Rita," predicted Harvey Howell, a national response team member with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and head of the San Antonio VOAD.

Howell suggested that a large regional recovery effort may be most effective, one that was designed to go into communities as they get their power restored, flood waters recede and assessments are completed.

"I think there's going to be a huge need for coordination and overarching organization about what areas are ready to go, and then we move to the next one and the next one, as opposed to, 'This is my community and I want to get it done,'" he said.

"The experience from Rita is going to perhaps help us come together quicker, recognize why we need to unite and tackle this in a unified way rather than piecemeal," he said. "If ever that lesson needed to be learned, we need to learn it this time because of the magnitude of what's happened."

Beneke's Dallas-based umbrella organization, which serves about 16 counties and includes interfaiths, social service groups and city, state and federal agencies, was assisting evacuees who continue to arrive daily in north Texas. She said response organizations were already working on a regional basis and worked closely with each other to expand their reach.

"We have several groups that are within different regions of the state and what's good about that is we can work within our own region to coordinate and to give out information and to assist and then we can work statewide because we have that network," she said. "As big as Texas is, it's very difficult for one group to coordinate the whole state. It's almost impossible. We're able to do it more as a group effort."

Kerr, however, expressed concern that as Houston begins its recovery, hard hit poorer communities will be forgotten.

"Our concern is a lot of attention has been on Houston, and once the power comes on, things are going to be better in Houston but the really hard hit and poorer communities . . . will fade from people's memories way too quickly and those communities are going to require years to recover."

"We're all struggling to figure out how we best respond to this," she said.

Meantime, power remained off for more than 1 million Texans and officials said it might be Thursday before service was restored. State officials said more than 20,000 workers from utility companies around the nation were working to restore electricity.

Next week was also when Galveston residents were expected to be allowed to return home, according to City Manager Steve LeBlanc, although power was not expected to be fully restored. Water and sewer service was also slowly being restored to Galveston.

Some 40,000 residents fled the island when Ike approached. The Category 2 storm slammed the Texas coast Sept. 13 with 110 mph winds. At least 27 deaths in Texas were blamed on the storm. Tens of thousands of homes were flooded throughout the region, with 10,000 to 15,000 reported flooded in South Jefferson and South Orange counties and estimates that in Harris County, 40 to 50 times as many homes were damaged by Ike as were damaged by Rita.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry continued to urge residents to remain patient and to wait to return to their homes until it was safe.

"I urge Texans to stay where they are as local leaders work around the clock to bring necessary utilities back online," Perry said. "We will continue to worth with our federal, local and private sector partners to ensure Texans impacted by Hurricane Ike can begin the process of rebuilding their lives and communities."

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