Neighbors help in smaller disasters


HOGATE, OHIO (May 5, 2000) -- People in this northwest Ohio village know

firsthand how quickly floodwaters can overtake a small town. A spring storm

two weeks ago caused rivers to suddenly overtake their banks, flooding

houses and closing roads.

At least four families had to be evacuated. Twenty-five homes were damaged.

Some houses had basements full of water; others had four feet of water above

that on the first floor. Holgate Mayor James Junge declared the village a

disaster area, making it eligible for county and state aid.

But after countywide damage assessments in Henry County, the village was

denied Small Business Administration (SBA) loans because the damage was not

extensive enough, said Tim Weaver, director of Henry County Emergency

Management. "Under the SBA definition, major damage is defined as four feet

of water in the living quarters. The basement doesn't count as living

quarters. Also, 40 percent of the appraised value of the house has to be


As strong spring storm systems move through the U.S., and floodwaters

overtake towns like Hogate, many smaller-scale disasters will go undeclared.

That means response will happen at a local level, said Weaver.

But such response can be highly effective. The village has created a

disaster relief fund at the Henry County Bank. Local organizations --

churches, the Lion's Club, other community groups -- and individual

volunteers are meeting survivors' needs. "And they've done a super job,"

said Weaver. "There is a lot of what I'd call 'small-town spirit' at work


"The village is doing well in coordinating a response," agreed the Rev. Ted

Rellstab, pastor at St. John's Lutheran Church.

Southeast Michigan is also mopping up floodwaters from the same torrential

rainstorm, which caused the Maumee and Tiffin rivers to overflow. School

Creek, normally a foot deep, rose as much as four feet and cascaded over its


And in North Idaho, two inches of rain flooded basements and closed roads.

The St. Joe River crested 6 inches above flood stage but is now back to

normal. In that region, forecasters said that cooler mountain temperatures

have kept runoff flooding in check. But with snow still lying in the high

country, the threat of more flooding this spring continues. Forecasters are

cautioning residents in many regions to keep an eye on the weather and

listen for flooding warnings.

This year's tornado season has also hit small-town America, said Stan

Hankins of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. "There have been a number of

smaller-scale disasters in which tornadoes cause a severe pocket of damage.

These will not get federal declarations or even national denominational

appeals," he said. "But an effective local-level response is very important.

You might have a big church that takes the lead, for example."

As more severe weather is forecast this spring, disaster responders are

trying to stay in top of not only large-scale situations but small towns,

too. "That's always something to keep an eye on," said Ellie Wykstra, a

Church World Service disaster resource facilitator.

Disasters that affect small towns or rural areas may not have the

statistical impact to make headlines but can pack a financial wallop for the

few families they do affect.

Even a disaster that misses a neighborhood can hit the fencing surrounding

it - at a replacement cost of $1,000 per mile of fencing, said Rose Kormann

of Lutheran Rural Response. "Blizzards, fire, tornadoes -- almost any

disaster can destroy or weaken fencing," she said.

Response to small-scale disasters is administered largely at a local level.

For a non-federally declared disaster or a disaster that affects only a few

families, most denominations work through local contacts or churches, said

Bev Abma, disaster response administrator for the Christian Reformed World

Relief Committee. "But this can be an inconsistent type of response, because

some churches simply have more of a vision for the needs in a community than

others," she said.

Survivors of small-scale disasters may also be vulnerable to getting

inundated with material donations, said Ben Curran of the Federal Emergency

Management Agency. "A small town can get easily overwhelmed by an influx of

donations," he said. He recommended that small towns - and other disaster

responders - include donations management as part of an essential emergency

information plan. "It may not be as important as life and safety issues but

information about donations needs to be disseminated very rapidly."

Emergency response officials in small towns often reach out to their

neighboring counties for backup and information-sharing, added Curran.

A sheriff's department often takes care of gathering initial damage

statistics in a small town, said Chuck Mazziott, director of the

Caddo-Bossier Parish Office of Emergency Preparedness in Louisiana.

"Sometimes a small-scale disaster doesn't even entail getting a state

assessment, even if a local state of emergency is declared," he said.

Small towns may also have fewer resources with which to initially respond,

added Kurt Pickering, public information officer for the Tennessee Emergency

Management Agency. "When we respond to a small town, we start looking right

away for other resources we can bring in," he said.

On the other hand, it's easier to account for everyone's well-being, he

added. "If you're in a rural county, you'll have fewer lives threatened,

which would allow us to protect property sooner," he said.

Posted May 5, 2000

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