Photo: The Fuller Center Disaster ReBuilders’ Aaron Ratliff with homeowner Norika Nakada at the Jan. 10 dedication of her repaired home.
Long-term recovery after a natural disaster is extremely difficult, and the work often is exacerbated by the lack of attention in the months and years as other disasters make headlines. It is in the trenches of this struggle that the Fuller Center Disaster ReBuilders work to rebuild homes, rebuild lives and rebuild hope for those in danger of losing it.
The Disaster ReBuilders’ newest base is in New Bern, N.C., helping families impacted by September’s Hurricane Florence. One week ago, they dedicated their first repaired home for the widow of a Marine Corps veteran whose house was damaged primarily by a large tree that smashed through the roof of her home and the water and mold issues that followed. (Click here for a photo gallery and a video from the dedication.)
The dedication happened while teams of volunteers from Orchard Park (N.Y.) Presbyterian Church and Auburn (Ala.) United Methodist Church were in town working with the Disaster ReBuilders. This is fitting because the two churches worked together with the Disaster ReBuilders last year on the Texas coast, where the Disaster ReBuilders maintain a current base of operations.
“A lot of those who signed up already are teams who came to work with us in Texas,” the Disaster ReBuilders’ Toni Karam Ratliff said Wednesday by phone in New Bern. “They had a good experience and wanted to come back. We’ve got over 700 volunteers over the next three or four months coming in every week.”
That doesn’t mean, though, that anything is slowing down in the Houston area. If anything, work there may still be increasing.
“For those west of the Mississippi, we’re still encouraging them to go to Houston where it’s closer and cheaper, which is a good thing,” said Ratliff, whose husband Aaron is leading construction efforts in New Bern after leaving the Texas work in capable hands. “That way, we can keep them flowing to both areas. Or, if we’re too full in one, we can shift and ask them to go to another. We want to make sure there’s enough work for everyone to do.”
While volunteers’ positive experiences working with the Disaster ReBuilders in Texas means they can find plenty of eager hands to serve in North Carolina, that track record of success in Texas also helped them set up shop very quickly in New Bern.
“We have been very, very fortunate to immediately connect with some wonderful people,” said Ratliff, referring to the Craven County Disaster Recovery Alliance. “They are all on board and have really put the word out there. When they looked at our website, they saw what we’ve done in Texas and were a lot more comfortable with it and saw the track record.”
The work in New Bern has been a little different from that in Texas, mainly because of a dearth of funding.
“In Texas we’re doing complete rebuilds, and here with the funding so far we are very limited,” Ratliff said. “We are having to go in and do surgical repairs. Then, if we get more funding or if a church sponsors a house, then we can do the kind of rebuild that we are used to doing.”
Ratliff added that there is a severe housing shortage in the area, so much of the grant money has gone to making critical repairs to get people back in their homes as soon as possible even if they are not 100 percent ready.
“The money is just not pouring in here fast enough,” she said. “We’ll go back with a phase two plan as more grant money rolls in or sponsorships come through. Of course, we’ll have to do the work while they’re living in the homes, but our plan is to go back in and make that a Fuller Center home and complete it. It’s taking a little while for the community to get rolling and the funding to come in. Hopefully that starts happening for these people.”
New Bern is a beautiful community of about 30,000 people with a rich colonial history and close proximity to the Carolina coast, making it a popular tourist destination. In a way, that has complicated recovery efforts as some officials work to paint New Bern in the best possible light, glossing over the struggling families and damaged homes.
“As a tourist town, hey want to make sure they don’t lose that income coming in,” Ratliff said. “But by covering up the ugly, then people forget and won’t know they need help here.”
Ratliff suggested striking a balance between tourism and recovery efforts.
“The people who vacation here are the kind of people who can help,” she said.