Billion-dollar rain

Disaster | Faith-based cleanup efforts across the Midwest begin with no end in sight

Issue: "Left behind," June 28, 2008

Jimmy Barrentine is a calm man in the midst of a storm. The executive director of the Baptist Convention of Iowa walks to the command center for relief efforts in Des Moines to get an accurate count of meals served by his organization to disaster victims across the state on June 18. Over 13,000 for the day, he states, but quickly wants to explain: "That number is down from what we estimated because Iowans are so self-reliant and communities so close-knit that they already are taking care of one another."

With over $1 billion in losses estimated statewide due to this month's floods and tornadoes, residents like Barrentine know that their work is only beginning. Hundreds of Southern Baptist volunteers from around the country are arriving to assist in "mud-out" work on thousands of waterlogged homes: removing carpet, dry-wall, and belongings, and treating homes for fungus and mildew.

On June 19, when WORLD spoke to the 17-year veteran of disaster relief, the Mississippi River had yet to crest along the state's eastern edge while residents in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, and other flooded enclaves just were beginning to return to their homes and assess the damage up close-along with President Bush, who toured the area June 19-following the crest of the Cedar River at a record 20 feet above flood stage. Barrentine said he knew from experience that the damage exceeds devastation from the region's other "500-year flood" in 1993.

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Federal agencies have improved their coordination with local faith-based groups post-Katrina, according to Barrentine, who is working with the Red Cross and with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). John Kim Cook, who directs the Department of Homeland Security's faith-based office, told WORLD that 47 of the 49 member faith-based organizations are actively involved in the response efforts in Iowa, Indiana, and Wisconsin. "Although it's a very devastating situation, the faith-based and community organizations are reaching out to help those people in need, and they've done a tremendous amount of work," Cook said. He attributes improved federal coordination with local groups, along with community closeness, for the lack of looting and low casualties across the Midwest.

But uncovering the devastation was devastating. With over 100 blocks of downtown Cedar Rapids under water for a week, business owners face crushing losses.

At Polehna's Meat Market in a historic turn-of-the-century area of the city known as Czech Village, owner Mike Ferguson had to locate a hazmat crew to help him remove thousands of pounds of rotting meat. "There's a lot of people worse off from me," he told The Cedar Rapids Gazette, his voice breaking. "But I lost my future."

Prices at the grocery store were already on the rise before the floods hit. Man-made forces-such as increased ethanol mandates from Congress and aggressive interest rate cuts by the Federal Reserve-have sent commodity prices surging all year.

Before the Midwest devastation, the Department of Agriculture estimated a 5 percent hike in food prices. Now, with floodwaters wiping out corn and soybean crops, a bad situation will be worse for consumers nationwide. Corn futures jumped to nearly $8 a bushel on June 16, up from about $3.50 only 18 months ago. "Right now you have to assume the worst, and that is that prices are going to go higher from here," said Grainanalyst.com trader Vic Lespinasse.

Barrentine doesn't expect swift relief, either. "We are asking volunteers to commit to staying six weeks for the urgent work," he said, but recovery and rebuilding stages will take much longer: "In two years we will still be working this flood."

-with reporting by Timothy Lamer, Zoe Sandvig, and Kristin Chapman


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