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Working to restore lives in Birmingham

BY P.J. HELLER | BIRMINGHAM, AL | June 11, 1998

As residents of the tornado-ravaged Birmingham, Ala., area begin coping with their losses - in some

cases having lost everything including their homes, cars and possessions - faith-based organizations have begun to implement a three-pronged

disaster response effort.

An interfaith was formed shortly after the April 8 tornadoes devastated much of Jefferson County, leaving 34 dead and more than 1,000 homes

destroyed or damaged. The interfaith's mission, working with Habitat for Humanity and other response groups, is to help rebuild and

rehabilitate some of the homes destroyed by the twisters.

At the same time, an "unmet needs committee" was established to provide other badly needed services, ranging from counseling to rental and

food assistance, for victims of the storm.

"We're trying to get their lives back together, not just from an emergency perspective but to get them back and a little bit above where they were

before," said Beverly Gaither, chairperson of the unmet needs committee and director of housing for the Birmingham Urban League. "We want

to make sure that every individual is served and we don't want anybody to fall through the cracks."

The committee, aided by Mennonite and Baptist organizations, also plans to get involved in construction projects but are currently plagued by a

lack of building supplies, Gaither said.

The newest effort, headed by Ricky Creech, executive director of the Birmingham Baptist Association, is being geared to rebuilding the

estimated 20 area churches destroyed by the storm.

"There are three different efforts, but they are all cooperative," explained Doris Harris, co-chair of the interfaith group and an official with the

Baptist organization.

"We are working [together] beautifully. I think it's a credit to the faith community in this area that the agendas have been left on the table,

everyone is working together, and no one is pushing their agenda.

"It's all for the good of the residents and the homeowners who have experienced this trauma and this loss," she added.

The Baptist effort aimed at rebuilding area churches was spurred by other congregations wanting to "partner" with them to get their facilities


"We have multiple churches wanting to partner," Harris said, adding that some members of those churches are involved in the construction

business and were offering their services.

"It's just a different kind of initiative than building homes," she said in explaining the reason for the establishment of a third religious-based

relief group. "We're just trying to get churches that want to help lined up with churches that need help."

Meantime, the interfaith and unmet needs groups were working to coordinate relief efforts, she reported. Plans call for case managers from the

unmet needs committee to be assigned to seven of the hardest hit areas. They, in turn, are expected to work with area coordinators from the

interfaith group.

Harris said the goal was to streamline relief operations and avoid a duplication of effort. "We're trying not to create multiple arms and multiple

entities in order to manage this," she said. Gaither agreed, saying that both groups were working closely to eliminate potential problems. "We've

set up a system where we won't duplicate services," she said.

"We're doing the same types of things, except the interfaith is basically doing construction and rebuilding," she added. "We're taking the whole

gamut from beginning to end."

At a joint meeting June 8 of the interfaith and unmet needs committees, money was earmarked to assist in the rebuilding of three homes and to

aid in the purchase of a mobile home for another family. The homes being rebuilt will be two-bedroom units of approximately 1,000 square


Even as relief efforts moved forward, however, Harris said victims of the storm were still suffering.

"The pain for the families has not left," she said. "It has diminished, maybe slightly, but the families are still hurting. They still are very

emotional. It's almost like some type of reality has set in, 'This has happened to me and now what do I do?'

"Maybe the shock has eased just a little and they're trying to deal with the reality of having lost everything," she added. "There's still a lot of

hurt and a lot of loss being felt and a lot of trauma out there."

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