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Tornado rebuilding will take years

Disaster response organizations predict it will take years to rebuild lives shattered by weekend storms


"For a long time after the problems are forgotten by everyone else, we’re there still working."

—Art Opperwall, CRWRC

Communities in Oklahoma, Kansas and other places throughout the Midwest affected by strong tornadoes in the last few days are overwhelmed with volunteers who have come to cut up fallen trees and haul away debris but disaster response organizations say they expect to be providing long-term response for more than a year.

The National Weather Service reported some 97 tornadoes blew across Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska and Oklahoma. Emergency responders are trucking in relief supplies, including tarps, coolers, rakes and other cleanup supplies. Many of the survivors of the disaster do not have adequate insurance and will need help to rebuild.

Jeff Thompson, a volunteer coordinator for Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, said he and his team finally got into the areas affected by the tornadoes in Oaklawn, KS, a suburb of Wichita. While first assessments reported the damage as “scattered”, the assessors who got into the communities reported downed power lines, fires and gas leaks. He described the damage as “pretty bad”.

“We’re putting chainsaws on the ground out there today,” he said. “We’ve got to cut through there and be able to assess the real damage.”

Three teams with chainsaws are scheduled to get the trees and other debris cut away by mid-week. The next round of assessments will begin after that.

Bill Adams, director of Disaster Relief Services for the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC) said he knows there is work to be done right now in the most recently affected areas, but his organization's work will begin in a few weeks and will extend out for several years to come.

Once the homes are cleaned and initial repairs are done, the volunteers often go home and the public forgets that the rebuilding of both the structures and the lives of those who were impacted by the storms must still go on. It is that future work that is the job of the long-term recovery groups.

“We are just shutting down now – this week – with the work from the hurricane in Galveston Island, TX that started in 2008,” he said.

Once the clean up is done and the patches are put on the houses that can be repaired, Art Opperwall, groups manager for CRWRC, said the long term disaster relief begins. It continues long after the news crews pack up and the story has faded from memory for those outside the community.

Recently, the CRWRC disaster services teams had some 800 volunteers working at sites doing everything from clean ups in preparation for rebuilding construction projects to working with people affected by past disasters to help get them prepared to start the rebuilding of their homes. Opperwall said the volunteers are from all across the country and from Canada.

“We set up the lines of communication when we go into a community,” he said. “Then we stay in touch and help those affected by a disaster rebuild until they are back on strong footing.”

The Rev. Tom Hazelwood, assistant general secretary of disaster response for UMCOR (United Methodist Committee on Relief) said long term relief programs are what help communities return to a place where they can re-build from a position of strength.

“Once the initial work is done,” he said, “We are there to work with the communities to help them with whatever their needs are in the area of rebuilding.”

Opperwall said most of the communities which were hit by the most recent storms are “pretty resourceful,” having lived through storms like these so many times. Friends, family and community groups come together and do the initial clean up, find housing for those who are not able to return home and help with other arrangements early on.

“But when we go in, we’re there for the long haul,” he said. “We work with them and make sure that the rebuilding process goes smoothly at every step of the way.”

He said that organizations like CRWRC serve a purpose different than those which do the initial clean ups. Both aspects of disaster relief management are important, he added, but when long term groups come in, it is after everyone else goes home.

“We stay and make sure everything is wrapped up,” he said. “For a long time after the problems are forgotten by everyone else, we’re there still working.”

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