- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 22, 2004


When Hurricane Isabel blew through Virginia’s Westmoreland County last September, the wind tore a hole in Laverne Tate’s roof that insurance didn’t cover and the federal government didn’t pay enough to repair.

Eleven months later, with another hurricane season under way, a bedroom door is the only thing separating Miss Tate from the mess it conceals: the pungent, humid air, orange mold and rotting plywood.

Hurricane Isabel caused nearly $1.9 billion in damage across Virginia, destroying more than 1,100 houses and damaging an additional 9,000. Although many people are back on their feet, there appears to be no formal program that assists poor, uninsured residents who suffered severe storm damage.

Instead, the state and federal governments rely on a patchwork of volunteer assistance to come from local communities — churches, nonprofit organizations and private companies.

“If folks come to us, I feel for them,” said Helen Wilkins, Westmoreland County’s director of social services. “I don’t know where to send them. It seems sometimes like we’re referring them and referring them — and nothing’s happening. They’re caught up in a whirlwind.”

The Northern Neck Long Term Recovery Disaster Group is trying to fill that void for 40 area homeowners who have fallen through the crack between insurance policies and government aid. They range from single mothers to elderly residents on fixed incomes.

The hurricane — and a violent microburst that struck in early May — left them with warped walls, splintered roofs and shattered windows. Wheelchair ramps were swept away.

“These are groups of folks that have been left behind,” said Sylvia Williams, president of the disaster group. “You know that No Child Left Behind? They’re seniors left behind. They’re here, and yet, we’re ignoring them.”

The disaster group has appealed for help to the government and the community, but has not gotten enough response, Miss Williams said. Some homes have been fixed, but the worst still need repairs.

Gwen Manley’s trailer was damaged in the May 7 microburst that hit King George County. At night, she pushes a recliner in front of a stubborn front door that won’t stay closed anymore.

The air conditioner won’t keep her trailer cool, because hot summer air pours in through a shattered kitchen window, still covered by a sheet of plastic taped in place.

Miss Manley, 44, said she sought aid from King George’s Department of Social Services and was told no help was available.

“It’s bad enough that you have to ask for help,” Miss Manley said. “But when someone acts like they don’t want to help, you don’t want to keep begging.”

King George Social Services Director David Coman said Miss Manley’s damage could be fixed, but he was unaware of her situation.

Miss Tate said the Federal Emergency Management Agency sent her $1,502. Her insurance company added $87.50 for property damage.

But she estimates her roof would cost $7,000 to repair.

The local disaster group is hoping to fill the funding gaps.

Delegate Albert C. Pollard Jr., White Stone Democrat, reviewed photos of Miss Tate’s home.

He has donated $250 — money from his $115 per diem allowance collected during the extended General Assembly session — to help the disaster group’s efforts.

Mr. Pollard said he would explore legislation that could create a small pool of grant money that could be available to help disaster recovery.

“It’s inexcusable that people who’ve worked all their life and paid all their bills have Third World conditions,” Mr. Pollard said. “For an honest taxpayer, it’s just not right.”

The federal government provided $56 million to more than 29,000 people in Virginia to repair property damage from Hurricane Isabel.

But federal officials said it’s up to charity organizations to do the rest. The government money is meant to be only a first step in a homeowner’s recovery, Federal Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman Susan Greatorex said.

“We can’t make people whole,” she said. “We can help them start again.”

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