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Volunteers ease strain in Iowa


INDEPENDENCE, IOWA (Sept. 7, 1999) -- For Iowans worried about the havoc more rain and the onset of winter will wreak in their yet-to-be-repaired homes, a simple green shirt is a welcome sight.

Green shirts -- the signature "uniform" of Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC) volunteers -- brightened the Iowa towns of Independence and Littleton as they conducted a door-to-door damage assessment last week.

The team of 12 volunteers -- who traveled from California, Canada, Michigan, South Dakota, and Minnesota -- worked side-by-side with other denominations associated with the Buchanan County Disaster Recovery Coalition. Together, they discovered a pressing need to rebuild homes before more rain and cold weather arrive.

The interfaith group, housed in space leased by the American Red Cross, pressed into action quickly after floods and tornadoes hit the state in May, with more flooding in July. Flooding spread throughout the entire eastern central half of the state, and 20 counties were declared disaster areas.

Nearly 5,500 people have filed for assistance, said Pat Hall, spokesperson for the Iowa Department of Emergency Management. Damages are estimated at $8.5 million. The flooding occurred as both torrential flash floods and a slow rise of water. Many residents sandbagged during 95-degree days to save what they could of their towns and farms.

The recovery coalition, which was formed under the guidance of Church World Service, includes ministers, the Red Cross, community-based nonprofits, and county officials. "It's a good representation of the citizenry," said Ralph Landeman, a CRWRC volunteer who traveled from San Diego. "And it's a good example of what can happen if churches band together."

In their assessment, CRWRC volunteers uncovered "quite a few homeowners with incomes of less than $10,000 a year," said Landeman. "Many of these are very modest homes but will need major construction work and rebuilding."

The coalition has been systematically sharing information with flood survivors, simplifying access to help for residents, and resolving cases of unmet need. Their response includes special crisis counseling called Project Cope in partnership with area mental health professionals.

Amy Marlow, public health director for the People's Memorial Hospital, said that she is pleased the coalition was able to solidify so fast. "A lot of areas around us aren't in that stage yet," she said. "But we need to move quickly before winter sets in."

"A lot of people haven't hooked their furnaces back up yet because they're waiting word on a buy-out," she added. "And the plumbers and furnace repair people have a tremendous backlog of jobs."

The coalition created the Greater Buchanan County Foundation to channel monetary donations. With the new database of recorded assessments, the coalition's next plans are to raise money and recruit volunteers. "Until now we weren't sure of the depth of the need," said Julie Jetter, chair. "But now we realize that some families have been hit twice."

The coalition estimates it will need $750,000 in materials to bring the county's flood survivors back to their pre-flood state.

On a statewide level, faith-based response efforts are being organized under the umbrella of the Iowa Interfaith Disaster Recovery Network (IIDRN), which allocates funds in the form of individual grants for survivors who have unmet needs. The organization, formed in response to September 1998 floods, will continue to coordinate volunteers who can tend to survivors' emotional needs as well.

The ongoing disasters have stretched IIDRN's cash resources, staff, and volunteers -- but Iowa's many rural communities continue to have pressing needs. Many farmers have lost this year's crop, even those who were able to plant a second time after being flooded out last month. Farmers are facing a combination also plaguing their counterparts in the drought-laden east: disaster damage coupled with years of low crop prices. Many are being forced to sell farms that have been in their families for generations. And many -- especially those who have been through past disasters -- will hesitate to ask for help.

Many of the hardest-hit towns are small unincorporated villages of 300 people or less. Swollen rivers submerged entire towns, trapped residents on their roofs, and put scores of small businesses out of commission.

Many residents are still in shock from memories of once-predictable rivers becoming raging torrents. And in the town of Logan, where killer tornadoes cut a swath through the southwestern Iowa in May, they still mourn the two people who died and some of the 17 who were injured in Harrison County are still recovering. Those twisters destroyed six homes in a matter of seconds, cutting damage paths five miles long, and producing the first tornado-related deaths in Iowa since 1986. The day those twisters hit, a total of 21 tornadoes were reported in Iowa.

Posted Sept. 6, 1999

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