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TX response efforts concentrate on people

BY GEORGE PIPER | TEXAS | August 31, 1998

Receding water from the overflowing San Felipe Creek has not washed away the shock and disbelief from the faces of Del Rio, Texas.

The west Texas city of 34,000 is recovering from its worst flooding in 53 years after Tropical Storm Charley dumped heavy rains in the area on Aug. 23 and 24. Raging waters damaged or destroyed at least 937 homes and left 14 area residents dead. Another 32 are still missing.

"I still see some of the faces. Anybody who has been through a war disaster and you see the people wandering around in a daze, to me that's what it looks like," the Rev. John Feierabend of Del Rio's Grace Lutheran Church said Sunday.

Del Rio, Spanish for "of the river" faced the brunt of Tropical Storm Charley's backlash. Torrential rains stretched across 400 miles of rugged Texas landscape from the Gulf of Mexico to the Rio Grande with accumulations reaching 20 inches in areas. Flash flood warnings were issued the morning of Aug. 23, and National Weather Service officials recommended evacuations from low-lying areas later that day.

News from surrounding communities wasn't good either. The Mexican border town of Ciudad Acuņa, across the Rio Grande from Del Rio, lost nearly 3,000 homes. Other Texas towns also sustained flood damage. Tropical Storm Charley is blamed for 19 deaths in all.

The flooding in Texas comes on the heels of a four-month drought that saw temperatures soar to more than 100 degrees for 36 days.

Initial interfaith relief efforts are centered on Del Rio, located 148

miles west of San Antonio, Texas. The Bethel Center of Vel Verde Inc., an ecumenical community relief agency comprised of 16 congregations, is focusing efforts where flood loss is most severe, said Feierabend, who is also the organization's president.

The AGB Corp., a regional grocery store chain, donated use of an old grocery store where the Adventist Community Services (ACS) is directing volunteers who are distributing food and clothing. The Southern Baptist Conference (SBC) has prepared more than 24,000 meals so far for people living in temporary housing. A few hundred people remain housed at the Del

Rio Civic Center, down from around 4,000 earlier in the week.

One problem with recovery, reports Norm Hein, regional disaster facilitator for Church World Service and director of Lutheran Social Services of Texas, is that about two-thirds of the 900 damaged homes belong to low and very low-income families. He doubts that many of the people will qualify for low-interest loans or be able to rebuild with Federal Emergency Management

Agency (FEMA) grants.

"The poor were poor to begin with, and now they have nothing," Feierabend said.

The city established a materials donation center (830-775-3551), Hein said. The community especially needs building materials, such as plywood, sheet rock, shingles, and other roofing materials. Volunteers also can register by calling that number.

A meeting with interfaith organizations is scheduled Thursday to discuss setting up a permanent interfaith recovery organization. Feierabend said Grace Lutheran Church, which also is working with Church World Services (CWS) and Lutheran Social Services (LSS), will also meet as a congregation to formulate relief efforts.

"It's not just meeting the immediate needs," he said. "It's planning for months down the road when the major relief organizations are no longer there."

The Southwest Texas Conference of United Methodist Churches is hosting a training seminar so people can help children deal with the emotional consequences of the flood, said the Rev. Bill Harris of the First United Methodist Church of Del Rio. The American Red Cross also is training volunteers on disaster relief methods, he added.

United Methodist churches throughout Texas have supplied Del Rio with water, cleaning supplies and money to aid relief efforts, Harris said. The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) also sent a contingent from Louisiana bearing supplies, generators and cash.

The 116-year-old church missed out on flood damage, but Harris said that doesn't mean his congregation didn't feel its impact.

"There was not a person in worship today that has not been affected by this disaster," he said. "We all felt the burden of our sisters and brothers in our community, and with God's help would carry it through as people of faith."

Posted August 31, 1998

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