By GARY POPP
> SOUTHERN INDIANA —
Within an hour after deadly tornadoes touched down and ripped a violent 50-mile gash through Southern Indiana earlier this year, volunteers were on the scene.
Nearly five months after the storm, help is still being provided and long-term relief plans for survivors are in the works.
The volunteer-based agency March2Recovery, which was created within weeks following the March 2 tornadoes, is at the head of the effort to provide a wide range of assistance to the thousands of survivors.
With a staff of less than 10 people, the group’s primary purpose is to orchestrate hundreds of volunteers, representing about 50 agencies, to provide long aid to the survivors until their lives return to the comforts and normalcy they enjoyed prior to the storm. Although staff members have diligently worked for several months, the group now has the means to put its long-term vision into practice after receiving a grant of more than $2 million provided by the philanthropic organization Lilly Endowment Inc.
The success of March2Recovery has also called for the recent hiring of Jeffersonville resident Carolyn King as executive director to lead the group’s coordination efforts.
“Our main role is trying to be professional, be organized, be accountable to the public for the dollars that are happening and not over-promising what we can do,” King said.
She said the $2 million March2Recovery has received will allow the group to take on larger relief projects such as building and furnishing homes.
“We have not had dollars, except for rental assistance, to really start helping people until now,” she said. “We have just now started the rebuilding by the money that was announced.”
While the allocation of the money was announced weeks following the storm, March2Recovery is scheduled to officially receive the grant Thursday.
MAKING THE MATCH
King said March2Recovery has taken on the task of evaluating the needs of survivors and finding the resources provided by volunteers already in place.
“It is just matching needs to people,” King said. “We want to reach out to people that don’t have support systems.”
She said the severity of the storm and compassion of community members have resulted in a dedicated volunteer base.
“A tornado like this has such visual devastation,” King said. “It was so sudden and so impactful. It is just something in human beings, I think, that you want to reach out and help.”
King said after such a natural disaster, there is a swell of volunteers, and if those individuals are not properly managed, relief efforts can fizzle out before the survivors’’ needs are fully met.
“What happens a lot initially is that some of [the volunteers] got burned out really fast because it is very difficult work,” King said. “They gave so much of themselves that they were depleted.”
King said volunteers who have stepped up to help after the tornado include people from The American Red Cross, The Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity, New Hope Services, Inc., faith-based organizations, area banks and other organizations. She said some of the groups offer niche relief programs to help survivors at different stages of their recoveries.
King said case managers were brought on board in May to contact each of the 1,344 households registered with FEMA.
“That is kind of our starting place,” she said.
She said it is highly likely that even more families were affected, but chose not to register with FEMA because their own insurance providers were covering the losses experienced during the storm.
“Out of [those who registered with FEMA], most of them are going to be OK. They will get the FEMA money. They will be repaired,” King said. “We anticipate about 20 percent will need March2Recovery help. It is about 275 to 300 households that we will be helping.”
A TOUGH ROAD
Since immediately after the tornadoes, King said volunteers have put in long, laborious hours, from pulling people out of houses to clearing roads to building fences. But coordination efforts extend beyond brute manpower, however, as many volunteers have made their mark with pens and pencils.
Under the March2Recovery umbrella of services, volunteers have helped survivors file claims with FEMA, find doctors and receive Medicaid.
There have been hundreds of volunteers and dozens of committees writing the policies and reviewing the case management efforts,” King said of those who have navigated red tape to help survivors.
With its holistic approach to its relief efforts, March2Recovery created a spiritual and emotional needs committee.
“[The group] has been a really important committee because we were particularly concerned about the schools and school kids and issues with staff and kids there,” King said.
She said the group has helped locate revenue sources to fund an after-school program and, by working with the YMCA, provided summer-camp programs.
“[The children] lost a lot of time in schools. Even though they got into other buildings within two or three weeks, it just wasn’t a real learning atmosphere,” King said.
Jennifer Mills-Knutsen is a pastor at St. Luke’s United Church of Christ in Jeffersonville and serves on the March2Recovery spiritual and emotional needs committee.
“I got involved the Monday after the tornado,” she said.
Mills-Knutsen said she went to a United Way volunteer reception center on Spring Street in Jeffersonville prepared to help however she could.
“We have several families in our church that were impacted by the storm, and we wanted to be a supportive presence, not just in the immediate response, but for the long-term,” Mills-Knutsen said.
Through her position with March2Recovery, Mills-Knutsen has had the opportunity to address survivors’ intangible needs.
“We want to make sure people get put back together after the storm, that their lives are put whole again,” she said. “That doesn’t mean just their property and houses, but dealing with the trauma and spiritual and emotional needs as well.”
Mills-Knutsen said her congregation is one of many churches in Southern Indiana to provide volunteers following the storms.
“In this situation a lot of good church folk are coming together.” she said. “It is really powerful to witness that we are doing this together.”
Although March2Recovery is preparing to provide extended relief, King said organizers do not intend on becoming a permanent fixture.
“Until people are back in their houses our job isn’t done,” she said. “Once we feel that everyone is restored to their homes and, hopefully, restored emotionally, then we will go away. March2Recovery will go away.”