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Entire community part of solution

BY SUSAN KIM | CUERO, Tex. | November 23, 1998

CUERO, Tex. (Nov. 23, 1998) -- When it comes to disaster response, Texans

in this small town don't believe in the old adage "too many cooks spoil the


In fact, the new flood response organization, DeWitt County Cares,

includes more than 40 churches, 10 different denominations, community


organizations, local foundations, youth corps, federal and state agencies,

local and national businesses, food pantries, schools, hospitals, prisoners,

and volunteers from all over the country.

"Can you tell we want this to be a comprehensive effort?" said the Rev. Tad

Tadlock, pastor at First United Methodist Church. "Our goal is to pool our


to take care of people's long-term, unmet needs. We want to help people get

back to being part of our community and to living in relative comfort."

Although DeWitt County Cares was created to provide long-term disaster

response, it has reached many short-term milestones in the four weeks since

severe flooding along the Guadalupe River displaced 2,400 people here -- about

one-third of the population.

Two days after the flood, there were 2,000 people housed in shelters. Within

three weeks, there were none.

Volunteers from both the local community and

from across the country have cleared debris, built access ramps for disabled

individuals, and are beginning to rebuild homes.

Monetary donations are being

streamlined through DeWitt County Cares to ensure priority needs are met.

Pastors and volunteers have enrolled in stress management, or "Caring for the

Caregiver," workshops. Churches are sharing sanctuary space as other churches

make repairs. Minimum security prisoners are still clearing debris and

rebuilding road and homes.

DeWitt County Cares has attracted large-scale assistance from many

organizations and businesses. The Baptist Men served more than 150,000 meals

here every day for two weeks. HEB grocery stores donated food, infant formula,

water, and storage. Schools served as shelters, then as sites for traveling

medical clinics that offered basic health care, tetanus shots, and counseling.

The National Guard relocated more than 1.5 tons of food when a local food

pantry was threatened by flood waters. The AmeriCorps youth program and

Christian Disaster Relief dispatched volunteer teams. And the list of business

donors keeps growing: American Glove and Safety, Abbott Laboratories, Nabisco,

Aramack Food Service.

At weekly DeWitt County Cares meetings, individual cases are brought to the

table and immediately addressed. This week it is a single parent who need child

care so she can meet with her insurance agent, an elderly couple who still

need help cleaning up, and a woman who simply needs a visit and an encouraging


"There are so many unsung heroes in this community," said Nancy Blackwell, a

member of First Presbyterian Church who coordinates volunteer efforts.

At first, people in Cuero were daunted by the sheer numbers of those in


she said. "The school was the first shelter we had the night after the flood.

The sheer numbers were overwhelming. People simply had no other place to go.

We had a 102-year-old woman, and we had babies, and we had everyone in

between. Plus, the people key to the flood response -- hospital staff, school

employees, pastors -- were often the ones who lost everything."

One hundred of the county's 300 school employees were displaced by the


How does a community -- and one new to disaster of this magnitude --

organize such a thorough response? "We already had a ministerial alliance,"

explained the Rev. Ray Tear, pastor at First Presbyterian Church.

"But after the flood

we realized we needed something more. We attended an emergency briefing, and

were asked if we would start an unmet needs committee and an interfaith

response group. Church World Service helped us coordinate it, and instead

of telling us 'do this, do that,' they acted in an advisory capacity that

really helped us tailor our response to Cuero's unique needs."

DeWitt County Cares expects to exist as long as there are flood-related

needs --

and after. "We plan to keep our structure, even if needs are met and we become

a dormant organization. That way we'll be ready if it happens again," said


Both Tadlock and Tear said they anticipate that mental health needs will


because people will not easily let go of traumatic flood-related memories and

losses. "I went to visit one family, and there was so much debris piled so

high around their house that it was like being inside a well," said Tadlock.

"This flood can be an entire sensory experience," agreed Tear. "You see the

debris, you smell the standing water, you touch your ruined furniture, you

hear countless stories of loss just like your own."

"I hope that we can be a model and help teach other communities to set up

disaster response," Blackwell said. "The sprit of cooperation here has just

been overwhelming."

Posted Nov. 23, 1998

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