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'Delayed disaster' in AZ

BY SUSAN KIM | WENDEN, AZ | December 13, 2001

"The flood destroyed my home -- not immediately but over time."

—Don Peck

A few months ago, Don Peck noticed a dimpled spot on the linoleum of his trailer home.

When he looked to see what was stressing his floor, he got a bad surprise: the supports under his home were slowly buckling. His house was collapsing around him.

When floodwaters swirled beneath Peck's home in October 2000 but didn't reach the inside, he thought he was lucky. Now he said he realizes he dealing with a "delayed disaster."

"The flood destroyed my home -- not immediately but over time," he said.

Peck needed help. But the American Red Cross had come and gone. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had long since issued its checks.

So Peck turned to the Wenden-Salome Flood Recovery Commission. Or, more accurately, the commission turned to him, since its role is to find people in need of help who don't know where to turn -- or how to ask -- for help.

The commission, a nonprofit corporation led by community leaders and pastors, found a 12-by-40-foot donated trailer that could be refurbished for Peck. With a modicum of donated funds and the large hearts of volunteers, the commission found new appliances, upgraded the electrical service, and got through the permit process.

Peck moved in last week. "Effectively this trailer is worth $20,000," he said. "There is just no way I could be here without Dr. Saiter and that group."

Dr. George Saiter, a retired school psychologist who is executive director of the commission, would like to help more people like Peck. Every month, he finds more of them in this small community nestled among western Arizona’s Gila Bend Mountains.

"It has been over a year since the flood and we are still finding people who have flood damage and weren't helped," he said.

There are about 225 homes in the Wenden-Salome area, and the flood -- which swept through the area in the form of two raging walls of water a week apart -- destroyed nearly half of them. A federal disaster was declared.

How did so many people in Wenden and Salome, neighboring towns some five miles apart, fall through the cracks of normal flood recovery?

There are many reasons, said Saiter. Some people speak only Spanish, and didn't understand the steps they needed to take to get assistance from FEMA. Others were simply overwhelmed by the bureaucracy that inevitably accompanies disaster recovery. And still others, like Peck, have damage that is just now surfacing -- collapsed house supports, sinking foundations, harmful mold that has been growing behind water-damaged walls.

This month, Saiter discovered three more cases. "We continue to have requests for emergency aid," he said.

Many faith-based disaster response groups have given grants and funding to the group, and also they continue to send volunteers to help repair homes. But the flood recovery commission needs more donations to keep up its work, according to Saiter and other board members.

Board member Cheryl Montijo, who is also director of the local Chamber of Commerce, said that, when the terrorist attacks hit, people's focus left long-term disaster recovery. "When 9/11 happened, we wondered -- 'are we going to have to fold up?' "

Not if Saiter is successful in his goal of raising enough money to keep helping Wenden and Salome recover. He's approaching foundations, businesses, faith-based disaster response organizations, and other groups.

And contributions from individuals sometimes come at just the right time, Saiter said. "We had somebody make a $250 Christmas donation, and the same week we found out about a family who couldn't pay their rent this month because they had discovered flood damage."

The Wenden-Salome community has few jobs, added Saiter, and the biggest source of work is harvest on the area's cantaloupe and watermelon farms. The twice-a-year harvests last only about six weeks each.

"Many of the people run out of money for food, rent, and utilities in between times. It is a constant struggle for many residents."

It's painful to watch people suffer in the community, said the Rev. Frank Snyder, pastor at the First Baptist Church of Salome. Snyder, a board member of the commission, said the joy outweighs the suffering when people are able to move into homes that aren't crumbling because of flood damage. "These homes are not luxurious at all but to our people it's really great."

The damage is not only in homes but in people's spiritual and emotional lives, added the Rev. Lester Ray, pastor at the Wenden Bible Church and also a board member of the commission. "When it starts raining, some of our young people get really scared. There were some kids taken out of trees by helicopter."

Single mothers and widows are another group adversely affected by the flood, said Norma Saiter, secretary of the board for the commission. "In a community with no availability of decent jobs, single mothers struggle for their children. We had one woman whose husband absconded with their FEMA funds and left her with three young children."

Many residents simply want back the modest homes they lived in before the flood. Adolph Garcia, who is retired, said the commission is helping him get back to that point.

The flood destroyed his home, and now volunteers coordinated through the commission are rebuilding his home on the same lot.

Garcia said without the commission, he'd still be living in a trailer a friend loaned to him. "I am not a carpenter. And I am not a rich man. I couldn't rebuild my home. And I didn't find the commission -- they found me. Dr. Saiter became my good friend. He found me."

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