Finding new ways to respond in AR

BY SUSAN KIM | LITTLE ROCK, AR | April 15, 1999

Sometimes Arkansans can't help comparing their present disaster recovery to ones of the past.

Jeannette Barnes, director of the Interfaith Disaster Response Team (IDRT), makes the comparison in dollars: after tornadoes struck in 1997,

IDRT had a budget of $300,000. But today, nearly three months since a record 38 tornadoes struck the state, IDRT's budget stands at $50,000.

Barnes is worried that potential donors are tapped out from 1997. "I know that a lot of people gave last time; maybe they're simply given out,"

she said. "But we can't get started on rebuilding many structures until we build up some funding."

But the numbers don't tell the whole story. Earlier this week, IDRT met with officials from the City of Little Rock to shore up a partnership to

answer unmet needs. IDRT plans to work with the Urban League and with Project Cope, an effort funded by the Department of Labor in which

tornado survivors receive a stipend for clean-up work in their community.

While IDRT needs money -- and Arkansas needs volunteers to help rebuild homes -- the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee and

Lutheran Disaster Response (LDR) already have teams in place. CRWRC conducted an initial damage assessment and also plans to help

rebuild, while LDR will remove debris, re-roof and repair homes, and provide three new tornado shelters in the community of Royal Oaks, a

suburb of Little Rock.

The Watershed Community Center is also contributing to recovery efforts. The center is directed by the Rev. Hezekiah D. Stewart Jr., a African

Methodist Episcopal Church pastor and a black community leader widely respected for helping people in need, whether through disaster

response, food and clothing donations, gang ministry, prison ministry, drug counseling, support groups, financial assistance, or job training.

Watershed and Adventist Community Service are both operating warehouses in Little Rock in which material donations are stored.

In the town Beebe, about 35 miles from Little Rock, the Rev. Larry Treadwell said the Church of Christ has assisted more than 100 families by

providing building materials and appliances. "People are getting back on their feet, but we are still filling in the gaps that insurance didn't cover.

We still find people with unmet needs who just haven't asked for help. There will be evidence of this destruction for a long time to come," he


While working to restore lives after this most recent tragedy, many Arkansans can't help but think about the 1997 tornadoes -- and also about

past divisions between people that hampered previous attempts at a united disaster recovery effort. While the state has a history of racial conflict

and deep denominational divisions, it is developing a more recent history of responding in a cohesive way.

IDRT -- established in the wake of the 1997 tornadoes and now responding to last month's -- has its roots in an interracial ministerial alliance

formed in the late 1950s to try to unite a community torn apart by racial conflict.

In 1957, when African American teenagers integrated Little Rock's Central High School, the state's governor attempted to keep the school

segregated. The students were able to attend classes only when President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered the military to guard them.

In that era of angry mobs, violet attacks on students and their families, and bitter divisions between neighbors, Little Rock's ministers formed an

interracial alliance to begin to bring healing in their congregations and communities.

The current interfaith disaster response shows how far that healing has come. People haven't forgotten the past -- but they're accepting that the

present is different and the future can be better.

Stewart said the most successful disaster recovery leaders acknowledge existing community organizations and channel assistance through

them. "Over the years, we have established a trust from this community. People know us. They feel like they can come here," he said.

Stewart has established a "Love Thy Neighbor" program in which volunteer caseworkers help people understand and access all available

resources. "If I had one wish right now in this recovery, I'd want enough caseworkers to identify themselves with every single individual

affected by the storm," said Stewart.

If disaster recovery in Arkansas is crossing racial and denominational lines, so did the tornadoes themselves. Destruction was rampant in Little

Rock's low- income communities, in affluent historic districts, in small outlying farming towns, and among businesses.

Residents of Little Rock's Quapaw historic district were concerned that their neighborhood would lose its national historic designation until

damage assessments showed that enough of the 100-year-old homes survived to retain the status. Many Quapaw homeowners were

underinsured, surprising residents and disaster response leaders alike. "I thought more people in this neighborhood were adequately insured,"

said Robin Loucks, founder of Quapaw Realty. "I held a dinner at my home for people to discuss their special needs related to tornado damage,

and 90 people showed up."

Historic homeowners often have insurance that will cover rebuilding a home but not restoring it, said Cheryl Nichols, former director of the

Quapaw Quarter Association. "Financing that gap can be a real challenge," she said. Of 444 historic properties in the Quapaw Quarter, 19 were

destroyed, and 13 of them were National Register Properties.

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