When natural disaster strikes, people want to help immediately.
It’s a natural response.
But often, after the Red Cross has left the area and the national news has moved onto another story, the victims in a natural disaster are left wondering what comes next.
You have the first-responders: the state police, electricians and people who move trees off the street,” said Mahomet’s Melvin Bell, who is the Fellowship of Christian Farmers Rapid Response Coordinator.
“Then you have people who come put tarps on the roofs, that make sure the neighborhood is safe and all the people are there.”
After that, he said, there is usually an inevitable lull.
“People get back to their house, figure out what they want to do and contact their insurance company,” Bell said.
“You have a two- to three-month period where it is frustrating: the house is torn up, the owners don’t know what is going on. FEMA will take three to four months before they offer any type of money. And, it will take one to two years before farmers get any money.”
What are homeowners and businesses to do when their world has been turned upside down; when their home and possessions have been destroyed and their place of work may no longer exist?
Bell said this is where organizations like — but not limited to —Fellowship of Christian Farmers, United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) and Samaritan’s Purse come in to provide victims with the ears, expertise and hands they need to get their life back together.
Bell’s involvement as a Rapid Response Coordinator began after Hurricane Rita devastated the Gulf Coast region in 2005.
He was dispatched to help two members of the Fellowship of Christian Farmers group, which serves the agriculture community in the United States, Canada and New Zealand.
The Fellowship of Christian Farmers sent 600 people, a semi load of bulls and hay to help in the area.
But when Bell got to his assignment, he realized the people he was there to help had already helped themselves, so he reached out to other farms in the area.
In 2008, when Hurricane Ike hit the Houston area, Bell was one of 200 people sent to assist farmers.
He is back on the road again.
Bell left again Saturday morning for the Houston area, where he will help victims of Hurricane Harvey.
While he will visit some of the farms he previously helped in the the same area, he said this week-long trip will be a little different.
He arrived in Vinton, Louisiana, Sunday night to drop off a shower trailer that he built by himself for UMCOR. The trailer includes a washer and dryer and four showers.
While state police and other first-responders usually stay in churches with all the amenities, Bell found that the Fellowship of Christian Farmers and UMCOR volunteers usually stay in churches that have a kitchen, bathroom and classrooms to sleep in, but often lack shower facilities.
The shower trailer has been all over the United States and Canada providing the volunteers a place to clean up after a day’s work.
After Bell dropped off the trailer, he traveled south of Houston to find a rural church where he will house volunteers for the upcoming year.
Those volunteers will work to rebuild farms that have been impacted by Hurricane Harvey.
“During Hurricane Ike, farmers used safe pastures,” he said. “So if the cattle were down near the land near the ocean, they took them up on the shelf where they were safe. During Ike, very few cattle were lost.”
“Hurricane Harvey came out far enough that these farmers didn’t have safe pastures,” he continued. “It wasn’t so much the ocean coming up, but the rivers and bayous that overflowed and drowned the cattle.”
The Houston Chronicle reported that the area Hurricane Harvey impacted has 1.2 million head of cattle, representing one-fourth of all beef cows in Texas.
This area of Texas is the nation’s largest cattle producer.
Bell said other crops that may have been impacted include rice and cotton.
“If they haven’t harvested their rice, it’s gone,” he said. “If they have their cotton bales in the field, they’re gone.
“If they haven’t harvested their corn, it’s gone. If they have pasture that has more than three days of salt water, it’s gone. That pasture may be dead for six to eight months.”
Between the time first-responders leave and residents receive money from FEMA, organizations like UMCOR, for example, will bring in an assessments team, which will go into a damaged home to help the homeowner look at the damage and then will distribute volunteers to projects in the area.
“Some of the victims are capable of making that decision, but others are just lost,” Bell said. “They are in poverty or low income or their mind is just rattled so bad that they can’t make up their mind as to what is going on.”
UMCOR or the Fellowship of Christian Farmers will also help with the manual labor of tearing down or reinstalling walls, fences or barns.
“If you get a foot of water in your house, that water will go up to the ceiling,” Bell said. “UMCOR will tear out all the drywall, wait for two to three months so the wall studs can dry out, then a crew will come back and start to put the drywall back up.”
Bell said that sometimes people just need someone to be there with them.
Some victims, who don’t know where to begin, are overwhelmed.
“We were working on this barn, and the guy is crying,” Bell said. “We stopped and went over to him to talk.
“Because he was so disoriented, all we did that first day was talk to him. Then we brought in another crew who took him out to eat for a couple of days.”
Bell learned how much the visit meant when he returned for a visit.
“I was there a year later and he was a different man,” Bell said. “He told us that if we hadn’t been there, he would have killed himself.”
One thing that makes the Hurricane Harvey disaster unique is that about three-fourths of Houston residents, did not have flood insurance.
Every financed home is required to have homeowner’s insurance, which will cover tornado or fire damage, in some cases.
Many coastal homeowners also purchase hurricane insurance, which is an insurance that protects homes when winds blow the roof off, a tree falls on the roof or flying debris breaks windows.
According to the Wall Street Journal, however, hurricane insurance typically does not cover flooding from hurricane downpours.
When Harvey flooded the Houston area with 24 inches of rain in 24 hours, homes, cars, businesses and roads were affected in a way that is unprecedented.
Bell said that because so many Houston residents were without the needed insurance to cover the costs of repairs for their homes, many residents will be displaced for quite some time.
“We had a guy come to UMCOR after Hurricane Rita,” he said. “He said he needed help fixing his home, and when we looked him up, we found that he received $35,000 from FEMA.”
“But he didn’t have that money with him. He said he had to use it on living expenses.”
It’s an understandable dilemma.
“Their whole life is turned upside down. Where do they live for a year?” Bell said, “especially if your job is gone, too? You still have to pay for your home.
“You still have to pay for your living expenses. There are all these stories of people who after the disaster, everything they have in their life is gone and they have to put it back together and they don’t know how.”
Organizations like the Fellowship of Christian Farmers, UMCOR and Samaritan’s Purse have the capacity to help those victims regain their lives.
In order to serve those who have been affected by a natural disaster, the organizations need volunteers or donations.
That’s where Bell comes in.
Once he finds a place for volunteers to stay and makes the connections with local officials who know about the needs, he will be able to take volunteers to work on filling the needs of victims for the next year.
“If I can get 50 volunteers, I can help a few farmers,” Bell said. “If I have 1,000 volunteers, I can help a whole bunch of farmers.”
Bell will know more once he gets a figure on how many volunteers he can house, then groups can begin to contact him with the number of volunteers and the days they would like to help.
Donations also help the Fellowship of Christian Farmers and UMCOR meet the needs of the residents.
“About 100-percent of what you give goes to that area,” he said.