Volunteers are rebuilding Birmingham

BY P.J. HELLER | BIRMINGHAM, AL | July 28, 1998

Visiting Birmingham, Alabama, in the summer --

when the temperature and humidity can hit triple digits -- isn't the vacation getaway that

most people dream about.

But you'd never know it these days, as men, women and children from throughout the

United States and Canada have descended on the southern city.

The attraction? To lend a hand to interfaith efforts to rebuild local communities devastated

by tornadoes which hit on April 8.

"We're trying to live out what we believe," explained Ivan Overholt, assistant coordinator of

Christian Aid Ministries. "There are a lot of needs out there."

The twisters, which hit rural areas around Birmingham, left 34 people dead, and destroyed

or damaged more than 1,000 homes. Many of the people in those rural enclaves are low

income and most did not have insurance to cover their losses.

Although cleanup work is still going on nearly four months after the storm, much of the

emphasis of the Birmingham Interfaith Tornado Recovery Group is now aimed at repairing and rebuilding of homes.

The influx of individual volunteers that occurred immediately after the storm has since been replaced by a steady stream of dedicated workers

from faith-based organizations.

"There were a lot of people who followed the news trucks out," said Pastor Ricky Thacker of the First Baptist Church of Sandusky.

Christine Kirkely, director of Operation Blessing for Alabama and head of Helpline Christian Outreach in Birmingham, agreed. "A lot of

people are out there for the first week when the hype and the media is out there and everybody is just focusing on what you're doing," she said.

"They want to be there for the limelight."

These days, volunteers from faith-based groups are toiling under a sweltering summer sun in areas where the tornadoes leveled buildings and

snapped trees like match sticks.

The volunteers pay their own way to get to Birmingham and typically stay for a week. Their accommodations are often provided by local

churches, who put them up in classrooms, auditoriums or parsonages. At one location, volunteers shared rooms in a parsonage and slept on

Red Cross cots.

The rebuilding and repair work is being carried out under the auspices of the interfaith's unmet needs committee that is focusing on property

needs. A second unmet needs committee, headed by Doris Harris of the Birmingham Baptist Association, addresses social services.

"What we tried to create was a loosely organized umbrella organization to allow the volunteer groups to do what they need to do," explained

Thacker, who serves as executive coordinator of the unmet (property) needs committee.

Having that type of framework also allows volunteers to be sent where they are needed, Thacker noted. When Habitat for Humanity had more

volunteers than it needed one week, for instance, some of the workers were diverted to other building projects.

Faith-based groups have had volunteers in the area since the tornado first hit and many say they expect to continue working there well into


"I think we'll be here through February or March of next year," predicted Eddie Neufeld, project director for Mennonite Disaster Service


Neufeld said his group has already repaired 53 homes and is working to rebuild 14 others from the ground up. Work is being done on homes

of the elderly, handicapped and single women, people he says who don't have the funds to pay for a contractor and who have no insurance to

cover the rebuilding costs.

"We do not take any work away from contractors," he stressed. "We stay with the people who really need us. If they have insurance or enough

money (for rebuilding), we'll walk away," he added. "If they need a contractor, we'll help them try to find one."

Caseworkers for faith-based groups have been gathering information from affected residents, then verifying that their needs are legitimate. If

the applications are valid repair or rebuilding work is then scheduled.

Neufeld said that in one week alone this summer, 45 MDS volunteers mostly from Pennsylvania, Kansas, California and Canada arrived in the

area to assist in the rebuilding efforts. He said that number was expected to swell during the winter months, when volunteers from up north and

from Canada sought work projects in warmer climes.

Overholt of Christian Aid Ministries said he expected "an abundance of volunteers" this fall. Some 15 to 20 volunteers who have come in each

week have already repaired or rebuilt 25 homes, he reported. Another 75 to 100 homes are expected to be completed.

David Richards with Lutheran Episcopal Disaster Response, said volunteers from a variety of faith-based groups were assisting him in his

efforts to repair damaged homes.

Richards, who lives in Tennessee but has been in the Birmingham area for five weeks, said he will likely remain in the area until the end of the

year. "We're working on about five homes right now," he said. We're looking at doing another 10 or 15."

Gil Furst, director of Lutheran Disaster Response, reported that in a three month period, nearly 1,900 volunteer hours had been logged by 47

separate volunteer groups.

"Working with the Southeastern Synod and in partnership with the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama, present funding will allow this response to

continue for at least the next couple months," he said.

Building materials donated for repair or rebuilding are being stored at a Birmingham warehouse being managed by Ray Elsberry of Adventist

Disaster Services. A voucher system has been set up to ensure that lumber, roofing materials and other building supplies go to authorized

volunteer agencies.

Elsberry said more supplies are needed, except for roofing materials, to keep up with the workload. "We can use pretty much anything in

building materials," he said.

Both the Birmingham Interfaith Tornado Recovery Group and unmet needs group have been meeting weekly. Some 15 to 25 representatives

from 67 groups, including Church World Service, have been attending the interfaith's meetings.

"We continue to have tremendous response from the Roman Catholics, the Lutherans, the Episcopalians, the United Methodists, the Red Cross

and many others," reported the Rev. Mike Harper, associate director of the Council on Ministries, North Alabama Conference, the United

Methodist Church.

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