FEMA’s failure

There’s something oddly missing in the area where tornadoes six months apart in 2019 and 2020 touched down damaging hundreds of homes in Mississippi.

There are no FEMA trailers. You know those ubiquitous small gray trailers that pop up after natural disasters.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency opted not to provide trailers for people whose homes were damaged by the storms, Robby Lawson, the construction manager for Restore Jones County explained to us one day during a break from painting walls at The Glory House in Laurel, Mississippi.

Due to Covid, FEMA opted to have drones flyover homes to determine tornado damage. That means no FEMA inspector ever entered the houses to see the inside damage, like waterlogged walls, thus the cost of those repairs didn’t figure in FEMA’s calculations, he said.

The overall damage to the homes here didn’t meet FEMA’s cost threshold for providing trailers, Robby told us.

So instead, a year after the last big storm, we saw some families living in small camping trailers parked on land still strewn with storm debris.

We volunteer for NOMADS, a Methodist group. The official name is Nomads on a Mission Active in Divine Service. The joke is the acronym really means Nice Old Methodists Avoiding Deep Snow.

NOMADS  travel from project to project in their RVs, spending one to three weeks, repairing homes after disasters or fixing up churches or camps.

Right now our RV is parked in the parking lot of the former Mississippi Baptist Bible Institute in Laurel, Jones County, Mississippi. We’re repairing homes damaged by the tornadoes. 

As always here’s a deeper story here than me and Joe painting a few walls and ceilings.

This is rural Mississippi, the Pine Belt. At one point Midwestern lumber barons discovered the piney woods here. They moved to Laurel, building big houses.

Laurel was the yellow pine lumber capitol of the United States, but that was around a century ago. Now there is a big chicken processing company, a few other manufacturers and little else.

Jones county is home to about 68,000 people. Some 20 percent of them live below the poverty line and the median family income is $34,000. The median household income for the rest of the U.S. is $68,000.

The biggest attractions here are Erin and Ben Napier, the hosts of Home Town. The HGTV show follows Ben and Erin as they rehab historic homes, cute cottages and bungalows in this small Southern town.

A house remodeled for Home Town

The tourists Home Town attracts drive slowly through Laurel’s historic area looking at the houses. The women buy candles or Erin’s signature headbands at her Laurel Mercantile Shop. Men slip over to the Scotsman General Store and Woodshop to pay $53 for an heirloom hammer like the one Ben uses.

The tourists line up to eat at Pearl’s and the Bird Dog Café and then stand at the end of the couple’s driveway to catch a glimpse of Home Town celebrity.

Few of tourists pass by The Glory House, the 104 year-old house that served as a pilot to interest HGTV in Ben and Erin’s show. The Glory house was founded by Hope and Grant Staples.

The house is the headquarters for the Staples’ ministry of serving the community that includes a food bank, a Sunday worship service, children’s camps and community meals that regularly serve 400 neighbors in the park across the street from the house.

When the tornadoes struck, the team at Glory House swung into action. They set up six disaster centers over three counties coordinating with churches to offer meals, clothing, furniture, food and cleaning supplies to those who needed it.

In those first days Glory House served 26,000 meals to disaster victims, volunteers clearing debris and workers repairing the electrical lines. Hope and Grant coordinated with churches and restaurants every night to deliver hot meals to victims scattered among local hotels.

Then Jones County asked the Staples to step out to meet an even greater need. Could they coordinate the long-term rebuilding and repair of damaged homes here?

The couple prayed about it for a week before agreeing to create Restore Jones County. That’s the group Joe and I are working for.

Many homeowners had little or no insurance when the storms hit in 2019 and 2020. FEMA and the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency haven’t offered homeowners much cash either, Robby explained.

So there’s little money or manpower to rebuild damaged homes.

Restore is meant to fill that gap.

NOMADS and the Mennonite Disaster Service are providing teams of free labor to repair or rebuild homes from the ground up. Restore uses donations to buy materials.

The materials aren’t cheap.

There’s the price hikes you pay whenever there’s a natural disaster. The cost of hiring roofers has skyrocketed, for example.

There’s a shingles shortage. The cost of lumber has tripled. You can’t get a variety of plastic electrical boxes. (We don’t know if that last one is disaster, Covid or Chinese tariff related.)

In the last 10 months Restore has raised $200,000 to pay for materials. That falls far short of what’s needed.

Hope estimates Restore needs $500,000 to build just six houses from the ground up. That doesn’t include the money needed to replace water damaged ceilings and floors, for example, in the homes that are still standing.

So while people from California are buying up cute homes in Laurel with the hope of being on Ben and Erin’s show and tourists pour into the block-square downtown to buy antiques, there are people in Jones County living in camping trailers parked on property strewn with tornado debris.

And there’s not a FEMA trailer in sight.

Coronavirus comes to the Hannagans

Tissues in search of a nose

The coronavirus has hit the Hannagans.

I don’t have it. Joe doesn’t have it. No one we know has it.

The little virus causing so much havoc around the world has changed the way I deal with people and the things they touch.

Two weeks ago for the first time I grabbed an antiseptic wipe to wipe off the handle of the grocery cart in the Giant Eagle. I’d always thought people who did that were paranoid or silly. I’ve become one of them.

There were no large bottles of hand sanitizer on the grocery shelves. I bought a half dozen of the little ones you attach to your purse or backpack.

I read a lot of what I call apocalyptic literature where a virus, zombies or political upheaval turns the world upside down and puts us back in the stone age. I know how to prepare for the end of the world as we know it.

Two weeks ago I snuck in extra canned tuna into the grocery cart and told Joe we needed more canned veggies sneaking in those as well. I’m actually stocking up in case we get quarantined.

The following shopping trip Joe admitted that he’d been thinking the same way. We bought more canned veggies, a large bag of rice, noodles and extra spaghetti sauce. I haven’t added extra toilet paper to the list, but I have stocked up on cough syrup, Tylenol and tissues. We’ve made sure we have enough of our medications to last a month.

I stretch my long sleeves to cover my hands when I open doors in public bathrooms. I flush toilets by using my foot to karate kick the button or push the lever. (Don’t laugh, some of you do the same!)

I sing “This Land is Your Land” in my head when I wash my hands for 20 seconds.

This week we started bumping elbows with friends we meet at church.

Then there are the things I’m noticing about others such as how close we stand next to each other and strangers.

Grabbing a chai at Starbucks on the Ohio Turnpike I stood at least 6 feet away from the group ahead of me in line. I watched the barista push her hair off her forehead, scratch her nose and pour the tea into a cup before she handed it to me. The chai wasn’t contaminated, but I wondered what bugs her hands had left on the paper cup.

I’d never thought of that before.

When we arrived at a friend’s home for Sunday dinner, he went in for a big hug. I backed away and offered an elbow. He made a joke about it, then hugged me anyway. I stiffened.

Since Charley’s immune system is already compromised we’re trying to avoid her getting sick, Joe explained.

We’ll we’re not staying 6 feet away from each other, he replied with a laugh. I had already taken a couple of steps back bumping into the couch.

We’re not changing our other routines. I have a movie matinee date with a friend later this week. We’re still volunteering to serve community meals. We have tickets for the Empty Bowls fundraiser for the foodbank next Sunday.

We leave for Florida in our motorhome after my next treatment later this month to visit with friends and family, and do some disaster rebuilding with Nomads there.

I’m not paranoid about a virus, maybe a bit silly.

So, if you’re not my family, don’t expect a big hug when I see you. You’ll get a hearty elbow bump instead.

There just aren’t enough volunteers

hurricanemichael3_101218gettyPhoto by thehill.com

Josh Hipp, a disaster relief coordinator, sat on top of a picnic table across the bonfire from me and stated a harsh fact that has burned in my mind ever since.

“Volunteers like to go off to the latest disaster,” he said. But with the numbers of natural disasters piling up–Hurricanes Florence and Michael, wildfires in California–volunteers are beginning to burnout, Hipp said.

It’s getting harder and harder to get people willing to give up a week or two repairing someone’s home when the natural disasters come one on top of the other, he said. Everyone wants to rush to the latest spot, but what about the people devastated by last year’s hurricane or the one before that?

I met Josh at a bonfire on one of our last nights of a three-week stint volunteering for NOMADS in Crystal River, Florida this fall. It was an easy gig. We were working for the Crystal River United Methodist Church building new classrooms for a school the church is starting, painting the outside of a house for one of the members, weeding and generally doing maintenance.

NOMADS is a Methodist organization that does service projects in churches and communities. Its members also repair homes damaged by natural disasters. The group has disaster rebuilds in the Midwest and Louisiana for homes flooded out, in Key West, North Carolina and now the Florida Panhandle for hurricane damage.

NOMADS isn’t the first group into a disaster zone. They’re the ones that arrive a year later to repair your roof, sheet rock the walls or put in wiring.

Josh has been traveling around the country for the last eight years doing disaster rebuilds. Lately, his motorhome and trailer have been parked on the church’s property while he works in the area.

He supervises groups like NOMADS repairing homes for people who have gotten grants to do repairs after natural disasters. Recently he’s been working for Catholic Charities supervising Mennonites repairing homes damaged on Florida’s Gulf Coast last year.

Before his time was up in Florida  another hurricane had wrecked the coast. He’s already been called to go up to the Florida Panhandle where this fall Hurricane Michael wiped some towns off the map.

Well-meaning people have already flooded the area with help, but the nagging question Josh faces is will there be enough volunteers to do the work a month or a year from now when the repair grants are approved and the materials bought. Who will hammer the nails or install the wiring?

Experts say the climate is becoming more extreme. More devastating storms. That means more flooding. More damaged homes needing repairs and more people needed to do the work.

Who will do the necessary repair work that will be needed because our leaders have failed to work on the larger question of lessening man’s impact on climate. See the government’s latest climate report.

Will there be enough volunteers?


We outran Hurricane Florence

Hurricane Florence has made me paranoid. That’s what happens when you move your house four times in a week to avoid a major hurricane. It seemed like she was following us.

As Florence approached we were ordered off Hatteras Island, booted out of a KOA in Greensboro, North Carolina, and fled the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.


Now we’re in a campground 50 minutes north of Pittsburgh, taking stock and getting ready to drive back to the beach.

I ache for those who couldn’t just drive out of the storm’s path. They lost everything in the storm and its flooding. Joe and I hope to be able to help in someway with the recovery.

The journey, while a little crazy, has been fun. Check out the elk. We saw them up close and personal in the Smokies. The KOA refunded us all but $20 of the cost of our stay in Greensboro because we only stayed one night instead of our planned six because of the hurricane.


We visited with our daughter and son-in-law and dined at Alla Familgia–the best Italian restaurant in Pittsburgh. Tonight we’re going to a Pirates game. Go Bucs!11aflorence_4

Outrunning our first hurricane on the road wasn’t that bad.

There are bits of joy even when there are perils in the journey.





Waiting for Florence

I’ve been watching the surfers as I sit on an Outer Banks beach this fall.

We’re all waiting. The surfers are patient. They line up on their surf boards in the ocean beyond the waves breaking on the beach. They’re watching the water, waiting for a beautiful wave, a high one with a long roll that they can ride all the way to shore. It’s a beautiful dance.

The rest of us are waiting for Hurricane Florence.

Whenever Joe and I talked about retirement we dreamily spoke of spending a month on a beach. I had always envisioned a condo. Joe saw us in a motor home. We would stroll in and out of the water, park our butts under a canopy and read to our hearts’ content.

So here we are, living in a 32-foot motor home separated from the Atlantic by a sand dune on the Outer Banks National Seashore. We’re in the Ocean Waves Campground in Waves, North Carolina.

The campground is about a mile from Rodanthe. It’s the setting of  “Nights in Rodanthe,”a movie with Richard Gere that makes the hearts of middle age women beat harder. It also happens to be some of the best surfing on the East Coast, according to Outside magazine.

It’s an odd little place where the people in big  beautiful vacation houses that probably rent for several thousand for a week are served by one Dairy Queen, a Dollar General and a handful of small restaurants.

We’ve been casually watching the weather, noting tropical storms, more for the impact of a day’s rain on our beach time than anything else. We have a weather radio that we’ve yet to turn on.

Florence started as a tropical storm way out by Africa. The forecasters at first offered cautious optimism that it would not become a hurricane and hit the East Coast. Few storms that formed in that part of the Atlantic have ever hit the U.S., said the weather person at a television station in Norfolk, Va.

Toward the end of the week warnings about Florence ratcheted up. It could become a Category 4 hurricane.


The Weather Channel.

Friends from the Virginia Beach area called Friday. Had we seen the news? They planned to leave their stick and brick house, jump in their motor home and head to Greenville, S.C.. Maybe you want to head for the hills too, the friend advised Joe.

Then North Carolina’s governor declared a state of emergency. Apparently it allows the state to bring in the resources it needs in case the storm strikes. It also allows farmers to use transportation to quickly get their crops out of the fields. (I don’t quite understand that part of the declaration. Can’t farmers always do that?)

Some of our campground neighbors have begun to leave. The first to go was an older couple in a motor home who had pulled in after us. Their son told Joe he had driven them down for a  three-week stay. We saw them filling up the motor home at a gas station on the way out on Sunday. They were headed north.

The pastor of the Fair Haven United Methodist Church, where we attended Sunday morning, urged the congregation to attend a community dinner that night to discuss preparing for the storm. Then he preached a sermon about not letting fear control your actions and separate you from God.

After the service, Joe spoke with the pastor offering our help with the community’s storm preparations. For the next six weeks this is our community. We have a bay full of tools ready to use to help the people in it.

The pastor accepted our offer and urged us to go to the meeting. He told Joe he has seen storms before, but this one, this one, has him afraid.

We plan to leave when an evacuation, which seems inevitable, is ordered. Our house is mobile. We will pack up the beach chairs, drive several hours inland, park and ride it out. When the all clear sounds we’ll return and help with the clean up.

For now, I watch the surfers and wait.