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Texas response a 'stressful blessing'

BY DANIEL R. GANGLER | SAN ANTONIO, Texas | February 3, 2000

SAN ANTONIO, Texas (February 3, 2000) -- "A stressful blessing" is how one volunteer described flood response in Texas.

"This last year has been days of stress and blessing helping other people and

watching how God works in people's lives. It's been an awesome experience for me," said volunteer relief worker Bonnie Vollmering of Victoria County, Texas, 115 miles southeast of San Antonio on the Guadalupe River.

Vollmering is an accountant by occupation and director of Victoria County Interfaith Disaster Response by calling. She is a member of Faith Family, an interdenominational church in Victoria.

She recently joined 30 other response directors, case managers, and board

members of interfaith groups for a daylong meeting at Texas Lutheran University in San Antonio.

They evaluated efforts of the seven interfaith organizations that pulled

together during the last 18 months assisting thousands of people who survived Texas flooding that hit in October 1998.

Torrential rains from San Antonio to Austin unleashed unprecedented volumes

of water into creeks and rivers across south central Texas killing at least 29 people and causing an estimated $500 million in property damage over a 25-county area.

According to Norm Hein, a Church World Service (CWS) disaster response

facilitator for the region, the communities developed the seven interfaith

organizations with the assistance of CWS.

During the evaluation, Hein said they learned that the Federal Emergency

Management Agency (FEMA) received 26,109 applications and that FEMA and the State of Texas gave 9,249 Individual Family Grants for $42.8 million. Of these grants there were 745 that reached the maximum of $13,600.

The interfaith groups directly assisted 3,175 families of which 1,985 were

still receiving assistance on December 31, 1999.

The statistics about volunteers amazed the group. There were 5,789 volunteers who worked close to 90,000 hours. This doesn't count another 2,500 volunteers who put in approximately 40,000 hours cleaning up for four weeks immediately following the floods.

More than 66 percent of the volunteers came from outside of Texas.

Hein went on to report that the interfaith groups received close to $2.6 million in grants and gifts from faith groups and communities for the recovery. The interfaith

groups spent $224,247 on administrative costs or 8.8 percent of the total contributions.

According to Hein, "this is well below the national average of up to 15 percent for administrative costs in nonprofit organizations." He said each family received about $736 in assistance and was given 28 hours of volunteers' time.

Most important, Hein said the evaluation helped groups learn what worked, what didn't work, and what advice they would give other groups responding to disaster in their communities.

Vollmering said the whole relief effort was a learning experience for her.

Especially, she said, "I learned about FEMA, Red Cross, organizing, keeping

volunteers working, raising money for recovery in Victoria, and understanding how the whole process worked."

Harry Noftsker, volunteer agency liaison for FEMA Region 6 based in Austin,

said the evaluation sponsored by CWS was a valuable experience for

him. He said he learned "the biggest need for the interfaith groups is to get organized as soon as possible and train volunteers as soon as possible after a disaster."

Harold Vogisch, a semi-retired fundraiser for Lutheran congregations and

director of Seguin Area Recovery, another interfaith coalition, said he learned that similar problems are experienced in various faith groups. "Each one did something somewhat differently, but the whole plan worked well.

"The most powerful thing I learned was that in times of great distress, when

people are doing the Lord's work, they are able to work through many other people in their time of need," he said.

The evaluation session not only reviewed the work of the interfaith groups over the past 18 months, but also included a time of closure for the group. Vogisch said he was deeply moved by the service led by Hein. During that service, Hein distributed 120 plaques, each 2-by-2 inches in size, made from the wood of a house damaged by the flood. On the plaque was the CWS logo, a metal cross and the words "Jesus Christ is Lord, a promise of a new beginning." The plaques will be given to leaders of each of the seven groups.

Hein said he thought the plaque reflected that "out of the chaos of the flood came new life."

The interfaith group also used Psalm 46 as its Scriptural reference during the closure service, a passage used often to reassure workers against great odds: "God is our refugee and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear, though the earth should change...though its waters roar and foam."

Ironically, the same passage was read in hundreds of churches in the region as the lectionary for the Sunday following the flood, said Hein.

The interfaith group has no future plans to meet again, unless another disaster strikes the area. Then they will be more prepared than they were before the floods of 1998.

The seven interfaith groups working together on Texas flood relief included:

San Antonio Disaster Response, New Braunfels Rebounds, LaVernia Christian Assistance Ministry, Seguin Area Recovery, Gonzales Emergency Ministry, DeWitt Country Cares, and Victoria Interfaith Disaster Response.

Posted Feb. 3, 2000

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