Hurricane recovery Methodist disaster group sets up aid station here

DEIDRE CRUSE, Governmental Reporter
BRIDING THE GUSTAV GAP...Representatives of the Louisiana Conference of the United Methodist Church Disaster Response are staffing the Grand River Station at the Methodist Church in Bayou Sorrel to provide help to homeowners whose insurance or federal aid have not covered the cost of their repairs. Ready to help are, from left, case manager De’Nica Davis, volunteer coordinator Michelle Hadden, station manager Amy Mercer and case manager Brandie Wintz. They also can provide referrals to other services.

Seven months after Hurricane Gustav, blue tarps on roofs around the parish testify to the number of homeowners who were uninsured or under insured.

Others might have gotten aid or loans from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) or the Small Business Administration (SBA) that was insufficient to complete repairs to their hurricane-damaged property.

Those who have “fallen through the cracks” might be able to find help at Grand River Station, said the Rev. Amy Mercer, who is station manager there.

The station at the Grand River United Methodist Church at Bayou Sorrel is one of two the Louisiana Conference of The UMC Disaster Response, Inc. set up after hurricanes Gustav and Ike, Mercer said. Grand River will be open for a year.

The organization had opened several stations around the state in 2005 after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and has 63,000 volunteers across the state, including those who provide the labor for home repairs.

“People don’t pay for our services,” the reverend said. She said the program is eligibility based, and those in he most immediate need would get top priority.

Although the disaster relief program is designed to help uninsured or underinsured homeowners, she said, caseworkers could help others by providing links to medical or other services.

Since Grand River Station opened at the end of March, its two caseworkers – De’Nica Davis and Brandie Wiltz – have signed up more than 50 clients.

Among them is an elderly couple with numerous health challenges and a badly damaged home in an “out-of-the-way” part of the parish near Grosse Tete.

“Their meds are extremely expensive, more than I’ve every heard of,” Wiltz said.

“A crew wouldn’t go on the roof because it was so bad,” Davis said. She said the blue tarp had failed, and they had to remove their grandchild every time it rained.

The caseworkers had arranged for the transfer of a mobile home for them.

They are combing the parish to find those who need help – going door to door, and asking churches, libraries and businesses to post flyers.

Reverend Mercer, who is on the staff at Broadmoor United Methodist Church, has worked with Disaster Response for three years.

“We’re doing this because God prepared us to do this,” she said.

Davis, a disaster response specialist from St. Louis, had come to Louisiana to pick up her daughter for the start of school in 2005 and “got to Kenner in time for the mandatory evacuation”

for Katrina. With the highways shut down, she went to work with FEMA. Her dean at the University of Phoenix later referred her to UMC Disaster Response.

Wiltz of Baton Rouge is a registered social worker whose job history includes work with the American Red Cross.

Michelle Hadden of Port Allen is a member of the Grand River church who signed up when the church asked for volunteers. She is working as an administrative assistant at the station and as volunteer coordinator.

“They asked if we’d be willing to help,” she said.

Mercer said Hadden has made contact with other churches looking for volunteers to help with construction.

“We’re looking for local volunteers, too,” Hadden said.

By September or October, Mercer said there should be a steady supply of volunteers – as many as 50 a week – who will work in teams of 10 to 12 on various properties.

Hadden will be organizing those efforts and finding places for many of the volunteers to stay, such as churches or other buildings with shower facilities.

Reverend Mercer said the program pays $10 to $15 a night per volunteer for housing, depending on whether an evening meal is included. Some groups come to work for a week, others just for a day, she said.

She praised the facilities offered by the Grand River UMC, which is providing office space and equipment, and which has a gymnasium that can be used to store building materials.

“We want to identify and meet the needs and be done by March,” Reverend Mercer said.