Long-Term Tornado Recovery: Local Spirit Keeps The Ball Rolling

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Release date: 
May 8, 2007
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CORDELE, Ga. -- On a sunny day two months after a killer tornado struck the city of Americus, volunteer recovery efforts there continued showing how a community ravaged by natural disaster can come together to rebuild.

In one part of the city 10 community leaders met in donated meeting space to direct an umbrella reconstruction group, Sumter Disaster Recovery, Inc. (SDR), while in devastated neighborhoods elsewhere, power saws whined as volunteers from across the state worked under the local group?s supervision, patching roofs, hanging windows and rebuilding some vanished homes from scratch.

"The dedication shown by local citizens is the long-term engine in recovery efforts that we seek to facilitate," said Michael Bolch, Federal Coordinating Officer for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), who oversees federal assistance to Georgia after its rash of tornadoes and severe storms on March 1 and 2. In Americus alone, 1,300 buildings were damaged or destroyed, and nine deaths occurred statewide.

On May 2, FEMA and GEMA (Georgia Emergency Management Agency) closed out registration for Georgia households seeking recovery aid after those storms, with a $1.19 million portion of overall FEMA assistance going to 1,836 heads of household, while the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) has provided more than $7.2 million in low-interest disaster loans to homeowners, renters and businesses These Individual Assistance packages buy many of the raw materials for rebuilding private structures, and private groups like SDR form a vital link by bringing together the materials and volunteer teams providing cost-free labor.

"We try to keep the ball rolling," said Rev. Jim McIlrath, who helped organize SDR from beginnings set up by the United Methodist Committee on Relief, a national body that responded soon after the tornado in Americus and surrounding Sumter County. SDR helps move donations (like a $10,000 check received Monday from a California entrepreneur) into a stream of aid already disbursed by agencies like FEMA and the Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA), while coordinating the efforts of volunteer rebuilders, more than 1,500 of whom have already pitched in to help Americus.

Even after the debris from the storm has been hauled away, SDR must keep the flow of volunteers coming. Looking at 177 homes that were assessed as being uninhabitable after the tornado, SDR case manager Jody Wade says that perhaps 60 of those structures will be eligible for the group?s aid. Others were already insured, were rental property or were owned by occupants financially secure enough to do their own rebuilding. Wade hopes that volunteers will keep arriving through the summer. ?We had one convoy in here a mile long," he recalls, referring to a team from Statesboro, which brought equipment to saw down and dispose of Sumter County?s downed trees.

Americus is especially blessed with volunteer spirit since it is the global headquarters of Habitat for Humanity International, specialists in needs-based home-building. Office space for SDR has been donated by Habitat, which also helped secure donations of four computers. As total funds donated to SDR push toward $100,000, founder McIlrath counts 44 organizations, including FEMA, as partners in the group?s recovery campaign. SDR is also looking at longer-term disaster goals such as preparing shelters for evacuees from both the Atlantic and Florida-Gulf flanks of Georgia in the coming hurricane season.

The results were clear to tornado victim Bertha Wynne, whose home, on a sunny day after the storm, was being speedily restored by a four-man, SDR-coordinated team. The volunteer builders had come from more than 200 miles away to work with the local organization. Wynne met them with heartfelt hugs and an exclamation: ?God bless you! Thank you for coming!"

FEMA coordinates the feder...

Last Updated: 
July 16, 2012 - 18:46
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