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Photo by Dean Hoffmeyer/Richmond Times-Dispatch/AP

Calm amidst the storm

Disaster | Hurricane Irene's many victims rely on volunteer cleanup crews even as they ready for the next possible storm

Issue: "All tied up," Sept. 24, 2011

RICHMOND, Va.-At 12:30 a.m. on Aug. 28, Lisa Thompson thought her Chester, Va. home had survived the worst of Hurricane Irene. So she got ready for bed. "That's when I heard the boom," said Thompson of the noise that caused her whole house to shake. "I ran out in a hurry."

A tree had crashed into her home's covered deck. By the time the storm finally left, four trees had fallen in the yards of two homes Thompson owns in the same community just outside of Richmond. "I love trees, but now I'm a little afraid of them," she said.

Irene's fury failed to cause expected damage in East Coast centers like New York and Washington, but it left 46 dead in 13 states and left millions with lost power and damaged homes in inland locales off the media radar. Because of the storm size, early cost estimates for damage range from $7 billon to as high as $10 billion, likely making it one of the 10 costliest disasters in the nation's history. The federal government estimates that wind damage alone could cost more than $1 billion. In central Virginia, Richmond and surrounding areas were hard hit thanks to 12 hours of sustained winds gusting at more than 60 mph.

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"We have a big deductible here, so we'd have to clean this up ourselves, and we are getting old," said Thompson, 64. Five days after the storm, a team of five volunteers with the Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia was busy removing downed trees from her backyard. It was the first of three jobs for the team in early September that includes a recent high school graduate and several retirees. When the team offered to help, Thompson's first thought was, "If something is free it is usually too good to be true." But when the team took up their chainsaws at her house, they joined other chainsaws and humming generators echoing throughout the neighborhood.

Team leader Wes Stringer, 37 of Abingdon, Va., said, "A lot of us guys who volunteer love this kind of stuff." Harold Griffith, 68, of Boones Mill, Va., attacked the downed trees with his chainsaw while hobbling around on a bad knee.

Only two of the volunteers knew each other before meeting up to work at the Thompson residence, but they began the day with an early devotion, and by lunchtime had stacked eight levels of firewood from one fallen oak tree. The crew also decided to remove a hickory tree that remained standing but with its top sheared off at a dangerous angle. Thompson said the church volunteers probably saved her thousands of dollars.

A lot of people caught in Irene's path hoped for similar aid. The widespread flooding soaked crops and homes from North Carolina to Vermont. But many homeowners in the Northeast do not carry flood insurance, which is excluded in most standard policies.

In the flood-damaged area of Hampton closer to Virginia's coast, more than 100 volunteers with Virginia's Southern Baptists assisted families. They prepared over 13,500 meals in the first three days after the storm, and flood recovery teams spent the week enduring a heat wave in sealed protection suits while tearing out water-soaked insulation and unloading buckets of mud and silt from area homes.

With a spate of weather-related disasters this year, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has less than $800 million left in its disaster relief fund-with $400 billion in claims already pending for other recovery efforts before hurricane. Soon after Irene struck, FEMA announced that it would halt new repair projects in mostly Southern and Midwestern states ravaged by the year's tornadoes. Those dollars will be diverted to Irene, but not without a storm of complaints from the tornado states.

Dwindling funds for disaster relief sets up a congressional showdown this fall over a supplemental budget increase for FEMA. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor-from Irene-devastated Virginia-and other top Republicans have said that additional money for disaster relief should be offset by other cuts. When Republicans approved an additional $1 billion to FEMA after the Midwest storms this year, they found cuts elsewhere to cover the increased aid. This time such efforts have met with criticism from even other fiscal conservatives.

"We don't have time to wait for folks in Congress to figure out how they want to offset this stuff with the budget cuts," said New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. "Our people are suffering now. And they need support now."

Plenty of work remains for chainsaw crews around the region, and nearly one week after the storm more than half a million homes still lacked electricity-down from 7.5 million in Irene's immediate aftermath.

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