Affiliates who learned from Katrina response help their colleagues in tornadoes’ paths rebuild
By Teresa Weaver
Natural disasters are a great equalizer, wreaking havoc across all spectrums of race, income and religion. And they are a great energizer, inspiring Habitat for Humanity affiliate leaders to set new goals, speed up timetables and revise long-term strategies to help more people caught in the gap between needs and resources.
On April 27, a spate of deadly tornadoes in the Southeastern United States demolished entire towns and left dozens of communities dazed and vulnerable. Keithon Terry, a Habitat homeowner in Birmingham, Alabama, stood in the wreckage of his family’s house last week, undaunted by the challenge of rebuilding.
“This storm allowed me to show my kids how we need to come together as a family and a community,” said Terry, a part-time teacher and seminary student. “This is an experience we can now use as testimony.”
Habitat’s role in disaster response has evolved quickly over the past decade. In devastated communities in Southeast Asia, the U.S. Gulf Coast, Haiti and elsewhere, Habitat has proved the value of having a respected, long-term housing ministry involved in the early stages of recovery and long after.
On May 8, an assessment team set out from Habitat for Humanity International headquarters in Atlanta for a weeklong tour of some of the hardest-hit areas in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and Tennessee. Giovanni Taylor-Peace, manager of Disaster Response field operations, led the team, which included Ed Carr, organizational development consultant, and Andy Bell, sustainable construction specialist from the Alabama state support organization.
At every stop, team members answered affiliate questions and offered advice on how to turn a disaster into an opportunity to serve many more families.
“You need vision, leadership and patience,” Taylor-Peace told affiliate leaders in Ringgold, Georgia. “You need lots of patience.”
A fork in the road
Habitat’s depth of experience and influence in disaster response was evident throughout the week. The Bay-Waveland affiliate on the Mississippi Gulf Coast — created in the wake of Hurricane Katrina — stepped up to offer whatever help was needed in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where the affiliate was just beginning to pull out of an inactive two years. The first order of business was creating a website to help with fundraising: habitattuscaloosa.org.
Wendy McDonald, executive director of Bay-Waveland Habitat, and two of her top managers — Bob Johnson, director of faith relations and community development, and Henry Winters, finance director — went to Tuscaloosa last Friday to share some of the lessons they learned the hard way after Katrina.
“They need a vision, even if it’s a poorly formed vision, for how they fit into the recovery,” McDonald said. “They could become such an amazingly strong and vibrant affiliate. But they’re at a fork in the road.”
Many small affiliates face a similar challenge: Keep building one or two houses a year, as they’ve done for years, or create a “new normal.”
“The people who step up in a disaster become near and dear to the heart of the city,” McDonald said. “Donors are going to give their money to the people who are rebuilding Tuscaloosa.
Knowing that media attention can be fleeting, Habitat’s Disaster Response team has refined its efforts not only to help raise funds but also to ensure a place at the table for long-term recovery.
“You can’t rebuild every one of the houses that were lost,” Taylor-Peace told affiliate and community leaders in Cleveland, Tennessee. “But you can play an important role.”
Cleveland has a full-time staff and an ambitious agenda to serve more families every year. For the first two weeks after six tornadoes barreled through their community, affiliate leaders suspended construction on new houses and focused on repairs.
“We all said, ‘Our neighbors need help. Let’s get to work,’ ” said Matt Carlson, executive director.
Leaders in the community were already familiar with Cleveland Habitat, and automatically called them to join committees on long-term recovery and unmet needs.
Emily Davalt, grant writer and executive director assistant at Lake Charles Habitat in Louisiana, was visiting friends and family in nearby Dalton when the tornadoes struck. Her instinct was to call the closest affiliate and see how she could help.
“Emily was such a godsend,” said Tammy Johnson, resource development director at Cleveland Habitat. “She helped us more than she will ever know.”
Davalt helped the affiliate enlist an AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps team, then met with the vice president of the local United Way to talk about ways Habitat could be involved in long-term rebuilding.
“I just gave them some ideas of things that we went through,” Davalt said. “I told them about some of the growing pains.”
Ingenious homeowners in Lawrence County, Alabama, turned a Dodge van into a storm cellar. At the height of the tornadoes’ fury April 27, more than a dozen people sought shelter here.
From victims to survivors
After any disaster of this magnitude, the stories of loss are nearly unbearable. The town of Hackleburg, Alabama, was reduced to rubble by a mile-wide tornado that killed 18 people. Scraps of paper and memorabilia have been found as far away as Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Clinton Knowles, pastor of a nearly demolished Hackleburg church that is now a disaster recovery center, said the storm has brought a tight-knit community even closer.
“We’ve already made the transition from being victims of the tornadoes to being survivors,” he said.
Survivors need a place to live, and that is Habitat for Humanity’s piece of the recovery.
“We’ve buried our dead and done some of our mourning,” said Gerald Marion, board member of Habitat in Monroe County, Mississippi. “Now we’re all about getting on with the business of helping folks.”