Relief still focuses on homeless in Del Rio area

BY JOE PAPPALARDO | DEL RIO, Tex. | March 10, 1999

DEL RIO, Tex. (March 10, 1999) -- When Tropical Storm Charlie's

assault on this Southwest Texas town ended in August, 19 were killed and

countless others on both sides of the US border lost their homes.

"People tend to forget," said Benita B. Patuel, director of Del Rio

Recovers, a non-profit multi-faith organization established to deal with

flood victims. "People are getting back into their own worlds, saying that

the flood has come and gone, that it gets no more news, it's history. Well,

it's not history. People are still homeless."

Del Rio Recovers is an organizational point where various

denominations and churches can effectively distribute aid and solicit

contributions, filling the void after the American Red Cross and Federal

officials left.

"We realized that when FEMA was leaving, we needed someone here to be

in charge of helping people," Patuel said. The group's board of directors

includes Lutherans, Methodists, Mennonites and Catholics.

Among other initiatives, Del Rio Recovers launched the "Amigo

Project", which assigns one church the responsibility to repair one home.

Volunteers helped establish a website and coordinates

distribution of supplies and repair work. Patuel estimated that 150 of the

320 cases were closed, with 25 to 30 home sites reopened to families.

The Rev. Judith Sellars, pastor at First United Methodist Church,

said help is coming from out of town, too. Her church is housing volunteers

including a youth group spending spring break repairing homes and a

Mennonite group, that is considering bringing a second group to Del Rio.

"We've got three places to house people, and they're all full," she

said of the visiting volunteers.

Arnold Menchaca, a Del Rio Recovers board member and United Methodist

pastor at Grace Community Church, said the groups showed unity and

put their collective resources to good use.

"During a disaster we don't look at denominations, we look at needs,"

he said.

Menchaca also serves on the board of directors of Acuna Recovers,

which aids Mexican citizens in the city of Acuna, just across US. border

and the still-swollen Rio Grande. Menchaca said the Mexicans affected by

the flood were poor and lived cramped into cardboard houses.

The denizens of these cardboard cities are referred to in Spanish as

"paracaidistas" (parachutists) because they come in during the night and

stake a place with four sticks and a sheet. They first build a structure

with cardboard, eventually shoring up the home with scrap metal.

"These people had no defense against the flood," Menchaca said.

"There were about 2,000 Mexican families (seriously) affected. All 2,000

of them were fed and given new shoes and used clothing."

He estimates the group has aided approximately 800 families.

"I saw the Catholic Churches were highly organized. They took

statistical studies of the needs and homes," he said. "This really helped

us and showed how much we need and where we need to apply it."

Menchaca also pointed out an ironies often associated with disasters

in the Third World : "After all this help, the people we helped are better

off than before the flood came." However, the new homes are built in the

same spots as the destroyed shacks, immediate targets for any future

floods. "Here (in the US.) we have zoning laws. There, you do what you

want, or what you have to."

Posted March 10, 1999

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