Disaster response builds hope in Gulf Coast towns

BY P.J. HELLER | BAYOU LA BATRE, AL | October 12, 1998

Residents in this small Gulf Coast town, many of whom eke out a living fishing, shrimping or as

oystermen, aren't used to asking for -- or receiving -- help, especially from strangers.

They are generally mistrustful of those from outside their small circle, particularly the government. Illiteracy runs high and many of the

residents, who came here from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, do not speak English. With a seasonal cash economy where a person's livelihood

often depends on both luck and mother nature, many of the 2,400 or so residents are reported to be living "on the edge."

Now, in the wake of Hurricane Georges, their future is more uncertain than ever.

For Pastor John Edwards, chairman of the Mobile County (Ala.) VOAD, trying to assist the storm-ravaged community in the southern part of

the county has been an especially complicated task.

"It's not a situation where people readily come out for help," he said. "You almost have to ferret them out."

The Mobile County VOAD (Volunteer Organizations Active in Disasters) is just one of the numerous voluntary efforts aimed at helping

residents of Gulf Coast states affected by Georges when it made landfall Sept. 28.

Those efforts are currently in various stages of development in Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida Panhandle. While it is still too early for

the groups to be addressing unmet needs, their activities range from active organizational efforts to simply helping residents cope with day to

day living.

"We're still in an emergency assistance mode and not into recovery," noted Betsy Metzger, VOLAG officer in the Florida Panhandle.

"The religious institutions are responding individually all across the area," added Lawrence Bowden, chairman of the disaster relief project for

the Alabama-West Florida United Methodist Conference. "We haven't come together yet to start with the unmet needs of these particular

locations. We're very busy right now with the business of helping people with their immediate needs."

In the Florida Panhandle, organizations today are still assessing long-term needs in the area, according to Miles Anderson, a disaster resource

consultant for Church World Service. He said at least five separate interfaiths, most of them already existing, would most likely deal with

community issues on a localized basis, rather than trying to address the problems on a broader scale.

"That's how they seem to work best," he said. "We're still a few days from really getting going."

He said he expected groups to be operating in Gulf and Calhoun counties, Walton and Okaloosa counties, Washington and Holmes counties,

Pensacola, and Panama City.

In Mississippi, the Back Bay Mission in Biloxi was taking the lead on faith-based recovery efforts in the Biloxi area. The interfaith includes

representatives from various denominations, city officials, the American Red Cross, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the

local food bank.

"I think they're really reaching out to the community to involve all those who should be involved," noted Charles Moeller, a regional facilitator

with Church World Service.

Moeller, who initially said the group would serve the three coastal counties -- Jackson, Hancock and Harrison -- affected by Georges, reported

today Stone County was added to the list of areas to be served.

In eastern Alabama, the South Baldwin Interfaith was expected to gear up in another week or so, according to Bowden. He said the interfaith

was still waiting for residents to complete paperwork with FEMA and the Red Cross to determine their actual needs.

"After we see how much assistance they're going to get, we'll see about stepping in helping them with our repair and rebuild program," he said.

"Right now we're trying to meet immediate needs."

Meeting immediate needs was still the order of the day in Bayou La Batre, where emergency services -- especially food and cleanup efforts --

were still being provided to affected residents by the Mobile County VOAD.

"It's going to take a little while longer to know where we're going and to move on to permanent type repairs," said Edwards, the pastor at the

Citronelle (Ala.) United Methodist Church. "Hopefully by the end of this week we'll have a better idea of where we're going and just how long

it might take. Right now, we're just sort of hanging in there day to day."

The VOAD includes representatives from Catholic Social Services, United Methodists, Baptists, Mennonites, Seventh-day Adventists, American

Red Cross and the Bay Area Food Bank. It is using a ministerial group in Bayou La Batre as a go-between with local residents.

"We're looking at the local ministerial alliance to help," Edwards said. "We're trying to work with the Buddhist priests to help us in that area.

They (residents) don't trust anybody from the outside. That's why we're working with the local ministerial alliance and the people there who

relate to them on a more daily basis."

One of the goals is to help bridge the cultural gap between the Southeast Asian population in the town and the outside interfaith. In one case,

Edwards reported, Vietnamese residents said, "'We appreciate all this food but can't you get us some Vietnamese food?'"

"We are trying to work to meet their needs," he said.

Edwards said he hoped that relief efforts could be completed in the town, which bills itself as "the seafood capital of Alabama," in three to six

months. City officials said 460 homes and 110 businesses in Bayou La Batre were damaged in the storm.

"I imagine a couple of months from now we'll still have outside teams coming in to help with rebuilding," Edwards said. "I know it's going to

be a slow process. I'd like to see us get this behind us within six months at the most. I don't anticipate it would be a lot longer than that."

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