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"Houston, we have a problem'

BY BY PJ HELLER | HOUSTON, Texas | January 14, 2005

"We're being asked to remember that there are still a large number of people who are victims and they are suffering greatly."

—Joseph Fiorenza

Unlike that well-known distress call that riveted the world's attention on the Apollo 13 space mission, the current distress call -- from Houston to the world about last summer's devastation caused by Tropical Storm Allison -- seems to have attracted little attention.

"No one quite grasped the magnitude of this," said Charles Gaby with the loosely knit Disaster Recovery Interfaith. "They still don't."

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Allison was the biggest disaster to hit a single city and a single county in the continental United States in terms of the number of eligible people seeking housing assistance.

More than 119,000 people have applied to FEMA for help.

City officials estimate the economic damage from the storm at $5 billion.

A major push for funds, materials and volunteers is being launched in the Houston area with pleas going out nationwide for help. A meeting to try to establish a formal interfaith is planned for Jan. 17 and a telethon concert is scheduled from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. Jan. 26. One Houston United, an effort spearheaded by the United Way of the Texas Gulf Coast, is hoping to raise $4 million which will be distributed by non-profit agencies. Camp Noah, which will serve up to 550 children, is planned for when the youngsters go on spring vacation from school in March. Efforts are also under way to find long-term housing for volunteers.

"Right now we have more homes than I can begin to figure out how we're going to get done," Stewart said. "That is going to take divine intervention, as well as the spirit working in a lot of people's hearts to respond and come here. We will not be effective if we don't have volunteers."

Stewart said she is hopeful that a formal interfaith will be created. She said she was encouraged by the response following Thursday's Convocation of Clergy held in Houston by One Houston United.

"By having an interfaith, it allows all of the players to come in and contribute what they can in terms of dollars, volunteer labor and prayers and not have to worry about who gets the credit," she said. "That ought to free people up to be more comfortable."

Some groups were sitting on the sidelines waiting for a formal interfaith to be created before joining in the recovery efforts, she noted.

"Our goal is to move forward whether it becomes a true interfaith or we continue to operate as we are," Stewart said. "Will keep going.

"Houston is hurting," she admitted. "We're going to keep working, keep moving, not let things get in the way. We're going to keep serving the people."

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