RALEIGH — For eight years, volunteers from church groups in Wake County have met and planned how to respond to a local disaster.
Now, they've got one, and the Wake County Interfaith Disaster Team is testing a system created in the absence of an emergency.
A month after tornadoes ripped through Wake County, this band of do-gooders is starting to tend to perhaps the hardest work: recovering and restoring normalcy to some of the thousands whose lives were upended during the storm.
The initial emergency is over. Residents have been fed, clothed and sheltered for the time being. Most of the government and disaster-relief teams that tended to those needs are gone, moving on to emergencies in other parts of the country.
But this patchwork of volunteers remains, drawn from local congregations and civic groups. In the months and years to come, Baptists will work beside Jews and utilize a single database to share the bounty of donations each group can collect during the recovery. Businessmen by day will become carpenters by weekend. Teachers will try their hand at landscaping, and each will become quiet comforters to those relying on kindness to restore their tattered homes.
Larry Marks and representatives from more than a dozen church groups and service organizations have met monthly in the past eight years to talk about this very moment. They are mobilizing teams to tend to homes not adequately covered by the safety nets of insurance or FEMA aid.
"The Katrina response was so uncoordinated because agencies weren't talking well to each other," said Marks, president of the interfaith disaster team. "We've spent years making sure we don't repeat that mistake if disaster came here."
In Wake County, nearly 1,900 households have applied for help with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Many households will recoup their expenses through insurance and personal savings. For many others, loans and grants from the federal government will plug any holes.
But for another group, which Marks estimates may be close to 200 households, that assistance won't be available or enough. Marks' group is beginning the process of vetting those who need their help.
In Stony Brook Mobile Home Community, where about half of the 180 homes suffered damage, some of Marks' partners in the faith community have already gotten to work repairing those homes worth salvaging.
Helping on the fly
On April 17, John and Jenni Faison did what they have done often in the decade they've been married: They showed up and asked how they might help.
Since 2006, when they created a nonprofit called Centro Internacional de Raleigh, the husband and wife have been helping those in need on a small scale, visiting homeless camps and struggling families with clothing and food.
On the day after the storm, they loaded up a concessions trailer full of food and clothes and parked outside the gates of Stony Brook Mobile Home Park. The residents, mainly Spanish speakers, came by to grab clothes and water, delighted to find two helpers who spoke their language.
Every day since, the Faisons have come back to Stony Brook. They stayed when others left.
Now, the Faisons are in charge of volunteer recovery efforts for at least 80 families that own mobile homes at Stony Brook. They have joined the interfaith disaster group.
Because of their language skills, the Faisons were able to connect with families that others from Wake County Social Services or FEMA struggled to help. They assured Hispanic residents that FEMA officials were there to provide aid, not report them to immigration officials.
"There was so much lack of trust," said John Faison. "Once they figured out we weren't immigration and wanted to attend to their human needs, we started getting somewhere."
Managers of the park set up a trailer and told the missionaries to take charge. About 150 of the 180 mobile homes in the community were owned, not rented, so any needed cleanup and repairs were the responsibility of the owners. Many had not purchased homeowners' insurance, Faison said, which can be limited and very expensive for mobile homes.
On the fly, the Faisons created a system for helping. They put forms for each family in manila folders, listing all the repairs needed on their home. They set up another trailer with goods and supplies the families of Stony Brook could access for food and clothing.
And, day to day, groups of volunteers would show up with tools and report to the Faisons' trailer. On Wednesday, John Faison dispatched two teams of Baptist men to mobile homes. One group installed insulation and new ceiling in a trailer jostled during the storm.
The other volunteers helped get electricity restored to another trailer, cut off when the electric box fell off the wall during the tornado. That day's worth of work will enable one family to come back home, ending weeks of doubling up at a nearby friend's trailer.
The Faisons have worked with other faith groups, such as Catholic Charities, to recruit local churches to adopt families. The idea is for a single church to wrap around a family and tend to their every need - both physical and mental. So far, 30 families have been adopted. The Faisons are seeking support for 40 more.
A year ago, the Faisons' nonprofit took in and spent $28,000, John Faison said; the family offered translation services to supplement its income. Now, their work has increased ten-fold, so the Faisons expect their budget needs to grow that much, too. They've collected donations of $6,500 since the tornadoes.
It's been an overwhelming task, but the Faisons say it's the job of the faith community, not government, to restore the lives of those affected by disaster.
"This work is exactly the mission of the church," said John Faison, an evangelical Christian. "If we'd been doing it well, the government would have never had to be involved to begin with."
Learning from Floyd
Hurricane Floyd brought a sobering lesson in 1999 to churches and other faith communities in North Carolina: The cleanup and long-term recovery for those without insurance coverage or adequate FEMA assistance would largely fall to them.
"We realized that the faith community in North Carolina wasn't really prepared and organized to respond to this type of disaster," said Larry Marks of the interfaith team.
A cluster of churches in Eastern North Carolina pitched in and hired a director to help them organize their donations and volunteer efforts.
With Floyd recovery work complete two and a half years later, Marks and others realized they needed to create a network of faith and service groups to be ready in Wake County for the next disaster. Nearly eight years passed without so much as a flood, but the group met monthly.
Now is the moment of truth, Marks said. The group is set to start vetting families in need of help, ensuring through volunteer case managers that they've first tapped all the possible resources: insurance, personal savings, loans administered through the Small Business Administration and grants offered through FEMA.
"We're the last resort," Marks said. "If all the other help is insufficient, we'll fix your house with donated materials and volunteer labor. It won't happen overnight, but we will get it done."
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