119,000+ seek aid in Houston

BY BY PJ HELLER | HOUSTON, Texas | January 14, 2002

"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.

Today, more than seven months after Allison dumped more than three

feet of rain on the region, people are still out of their homes,

debris remains piled along roadways and hundreds of people needing

assistance have yet to be interviewed by caseworkers. Some 1,500

homes are awaiting repairs by volunteers with another 400 homes

expected to be added.

Despite the widespread devastation, people both inside and outside of

Houston appear genuinely surprised that recovery efforts are still

far from being completed.

Everything from a lack of media coverage to limited funds to the

nation's focus on the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York City and

Washington, D.C., are among the reasons cited for the apparent slow

pace of recovery efforts. Others say that the storm came and went

quickly and that since it was only a tropical storm, as opposed to a

hurricane or other major disaster, damage would be minimal.

"We're being asked to remember that there are still a large number of

people who are victims and they are suffering greatly," said Bishop

Joseph Fiorenza of the Galveston-Houston Catholic Diocese.

Those still affected by Allison are primarily the elderly and poor

families with young children. Most live on less than $14,000 a year,

officials said.

"These people are virtually without a voice," said Linda Stewart,

disaster recovery coordinator. "They don't have the political,

personal or financial clout to do it on their own.

"The expression that we often hear in the Midwest when someone has

bad times is that they need to pull themselves up by their

bootstraps," she said. "Most of the people we are serving don't have

boots, much less bootstraps. And they are not going to recover on

their own. It falls to the faith community to help find that


That help may soon be on the way.

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


"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."

Related Topics:

What makes a community resilient?

What's changed, what hasn't at FEMA

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More links on Disaster Recovery

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