When Disaster Strikes, a Need to Organize Recovery Quickly

Carol Fouke-Mpoyo | January 22, 2015

Participants at a CWS-organized Recovery Tools and Training workshop in Warren, Mich., Dec. 16, 2014. The workshop was attended by more than 50 church and community leaders from across S.E. Michigan, who came to learn more about the long-term recovery process and how they can help their thousands of neighbors who are still struggling to recover following devastating flash floods Aug. 11, 2014. Photo: Carol Fouke-Mpoyo for CWS

Participants at a CWS-organized Recovery Tools and Training workshop in Warren, Mich., Dec. 16, 2014. The workshop was attended by more than 50 church and community leaders from across S.E. Michigan, who came to learn more about the long-term recovery process and how they can help their thousands of neighbors who are still struggling to recover following devastating flash floods Aug. 11, 2014. Photo: Carol Fouke-Mpoyo for CWS

Karen C. and Martin K*. are among more than 10,000 southeastern Michigan residents  whose homes suffered damage and loss last August from devastating flash flooding.

Both are trying to do what they can on their own to clean up.  And despite their own best efforts, both find themselves coming up short.  Government aid, insurance payments and their own resources and know-how aren’t enough to complete their recovery.

I spoke with these and other flooded householders in December in conjunction with a workshop in Warren, Mich.  The workshop was organized by Church World Service for people in southeastern Michigan interested in forming a long-term recovery group to help their flood-affected neighbors recover.

These survivors’ stories deepened my empathy for disaster-affected people. It also reinforced for me the importance of quickly activating local long-term recovery groups to help disaster survivors assemble the financial, material and volunteer resources they need to restore safety to their homes and a “new normal” to their lives.

Of the two, Karen, of Detroit, a disabled senior citizen with a fixed income, is clearly having the hardest time. Flood water poured into her basement at the foundation line, and dirty sewer water backed up through the drains.  The water crested at 12 to 18 inches, turning belongings stored in the basement into a sopping mess, contaminating her furnace and ruining her clothes washer and dryer.

She called the 211 disaster hotline and requested a volunteer work crew to help her “muck out.”  While she was waiting for a crew to be scheduled, she put on a flimsy mask and some old clothes and started digging through her ruined belongings, “trying to clean it out the best I can.”

In mid-December, she was still waiting for help.  By then, her belongings were contaminated not only with rotting sewage but also with mold.  The house is cold, and the heavy stench from the basement makes it “difficult for me to breathe,” she said, acknowledging it is not healthy to stay in the house but she is reluctant to leave and risk looting.

“I just feel alone.  I really do,” Karen told me.

Participants were asked to stand if they'd ever suffered a personal tragedy or loss, and to sit down again if they had gotten any help from another person to recover. Photo: Carol Fouke-Mpoyo for CWS

Participants were asked to stand if they’d ever suffered a personal tragedy or loss, and to sit down again if they had gotten any help from another person to recover. Photo: Carol Fouke-Mpoyo for CWS

For his part, Martin, of Oak Park, undertook cleanup with confidence after four feet of sewer water backed up into his finished basement, seeping into the walls and also destroying the furnace, hot water heater and clothes washer and dryer.

Middle-aged and able-bodied, Martin put on a mask, gloves and boots and ripped out the damaged walls.  Then he used a garden hose and disinfectants to wash everything down.

Next task: Tear out the old furnace.  But when Martin discovered the furnace pipes were wrapped with asbestos, he had to hire an outside contractor with expertise in asbestos removal.  Then the new furnace required new duct work and floor grates and an upgrade of the house’s electrical system.

As one expense has been followed by another, and then another, Martin told me, “How do you incur that cost?  This has gotten way out of hand.  That’s why it is a disaster.”

Martin attended the CWS long-term recovery workshop to try to pick up some pointers for his own recovery, “to find out for myself and be educated and aware and make better decisions.”

“I’ve heard other flood survivors talk about contractors’ prices that seemed way out of whack, and of contractors that charged people thousands of dollars then worked for a few hours and disappeared,” he says.  “So many people are being scammed, and I don’t want that.”

A strong, effective local community-based long-term recovery group can offer hope and practical help to people like Karen and Martin. Once organized, the group can assess each disaster survivor’s needs and help them develop a recovery plan.

It can raise funds, solicit donations of construction materials and major appliances, and deploy volunteer work crews.  It can refer people to reputable contractors and help them avoid scams.  It can also extend emotional and spiritual care to people as they face their losses.

In other words, it can pick up where disaster survivors’ own resources, government assistance and any insurance payouts run out and help restore householders to safe homes and a “new normal” life.  And it can advocate for infrastructure improvements – for example, ensuring better protection from flooding in future downpours.

In southeastern Michigan, a long-term recovery group is on the verge of forming.  My hope is that it can organize and get to work quickly. Karen, Martin and thousands of their neighbors need it.

Carol Fouke-Mpoyo is a CWS communications specialist.

* Last names withheld to protect subjects’ privacy.


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