Rebuilding takes time along Gulf

BY GEORGE PIPER | BILOXI, Miss. | November 11, 1998

BILOXI, Miss. (Nov. 11, 1998) -- An 11-year-old organization that was

little more than a file cabinet has been reborn as the Mississippi Coast

Interfaith Disaster Taskforce Inc., to assist Gulf Coast residents recover

from the damage caused by Hurricane Georges in late September.

While the destruction in no way compares to the havoc wreaked by Hurricane

Mitch in Central America, that doesn't mean those who survived Georges'

wrath on the U.S. mainland are without their troubles.

"It hit here a lot worse than what has been perceived," said the Rev. Max

E. Glenn, president of the Mississippi Coast Interfaith and pastor at First

Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Gulfport.

Seventeen southern Mississippi counties were declared disaster areas.

Residents, many of them elderly or poor, flooded the Federal Emergency

Management Agency with 23,000 applications for assistance.

The story is similar in southern Alabama and the Florida panhandle, where

even as late as last week people still had downed trees laying in yards,

said Cherri Baer, a Church World Service disaster resource consultant from

Kansas who trained volunteers in those two states.

It's been six weeks since Georges struck the U.S. Gulf Coast on Sept. 27

and 28. The Florida Keys suffered perhaps the most mainland damage, and it

didn't escape Mitch's notice when that storm turned north from Central


In the wake of Hurricane Mitch, it may be tougher for mainland communities

in Georges' path to draw volunteers nationally, said Charlie Moeller, a CWS

disaster resource facilitator and a member of Lutheran Disaster Response.

"This is one of the struggles you always have," he said. "The media goes on

to other things very quickly, and these other (disasters) get left behind."

But Moeller said the best volunteers often are found locally. After the

Grand Forks, N.D., flooding, the local faith-based groups there continued

to promote its calls for assistance and attracted most of its help in a

150-mile radius from the disaster.

In Biloxi, Glenn and other members of the Mississippi Coast Interfaith

network, are utilizing the

local communities as much as possible.

A nursing school included the project as an internship for its students as

they do casework one day a week. Another university also has future social

workers getting experience through Back Bay.

And perhaps the biggest step happened Wednesday, when the organization

opened its office for its new executive director, field officer and

administrative assistant.

Mississippi Coast Interfaith dissected the three coastal counties it

serves into six geographic

regions, and is developing a database of churches and volunteers in those


Housing is tough to come by. Area casinos contributed to a population boom

in southern Mississippi, Glenn said, and FEMA had some difficulties finding

places to put temporary housing outside the flood plain. Just as critical

as a roof overhead is providing a voice for the elderly and poor during the

recovery, added Glenn, who also coordinated local disaster response efforts

while in Oklahoma.

"We've developed a good relationship with FEMA and the (American) Red Cross

to see that no one falls between the cracks," he said. "There are some

(survivors) now that are just beginning to come forward."

The Mississippi Coast Interfaith/Georges recovery project is budgeted

through Oct. 31, 2000,

but Glenn would like to see the interfaith organization continue its

ecumenical work and to serve people in future disasters.

In Florida and Alabama, disaster relief officials there took the recovery

message into the community to find people needing help.

Baer, a nurse who works with the United Methodist Committee on Relief,

trained volunteers to go into cities and towns and find the unmet needs.

"We were starting to find several families who were looking for ways to pay

for the multitude of bills that were coming in," she said.

The stories from Florida and Alabama reflect the individual struggles as

people return normalcy to their lives. Baer shared stories about giving

vouchers to people who lost winter clothing; a family who salvaged items

from their flooded home, only to see their temporary home burn to the

ground; and a young woman, left homeless by flooding, who gave birth last

week and has another child with severe physical disabilities.

In that last example, disaster officials helped the family by paying the

deposit and the first month's rent on an apartment. "That case is certainly

not closed, but we were able to get them someplace dry," Baer said.

Housing shortages and unemployment in the tourist area plague residents,

who are encouraged by seeing volunteer teams in their communities, Baer

noted. The water and initial relief efforts have receded, but there's a

long path ahead. "We have to remember that problems don't go away just

because the house is dry," she said.

And therein lies the role of a faith-based organization's recovery efforts:

Providing assistance after FEMA and the Red Cross have left. "For most of

these organizations, their work is just beginning," Moeller said.

Updated Nov. 17, 1998

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