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'Disaster junkies' form backbone of US safety net

By Jay Reeves

Associated Press

Published: Friday, March 2 2012 1:35 a.m. MST

In a Thursday, Feb. 9, 2012 image made from video, Alabama tornado victim Deloris Mack, left, talks with disaster relief volunteer Julie Davis of Girard, Pa., at a work project in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Davis and her husband Ken are "disaster junkies," an informal term for volunteers who make repeated trips across the United States to provide assistance after disasters.

Jay Reeves, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Taking a break from laying sod in a tornado-torn neighborhood, volunteer David Elliott cocked his head to the left. He was trying to remember all the trips he's made to help rebuild after disasters.

Elliott went to New Orleans seven times after Hurricane Katrina swamped the city in 2005, or was it eight? He was in Nashville, Tenn., after floodwaters inundated the city in 2010. He's been to Alabama three times since tornadoes killed about 250 people statewide in April. Wait: that was just last year?

"I've lost track," said Elliott, of Sacramento, Calif.

Rebuilding after storms is becoming a growth industry as the United States is slammed by more natural disasters, and leaders of the response efforts say the nation's recovery network functions as well as it does because of a backbone of volunteers nicknamed "disaster junkies." The small group of people like Elliott travel from tragedy to tragedy shoveling mud out of flooded houses and rebuilding neighborhoods laid waste by busted levees, tornadoes and wildfires. Often, they bring more helpers with them.

No one knows exactly how many disaster junkies are active in the United States, but the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster says a core group of around 300 people travel the country at least six months out of each year performing such work. Based in Arlington, Va., the nonprofit group estimates several thousand more people are like Elliott and make several trips each year helping out after disasters.

Often associated with churches or other religious groups and traveling at their own expense, these volunteers sleep in churches or mobile homes and frequently eat food provided by other volunteers.

While volunteers and others provided labor worth some $147 million and donated another $200 million toward relief aid in 2008, the last year for which figures are available, some recovery projects still can't get off the ground because of the sheer number of disasters that struck the country in recent months, said James McGowan, associate executive director with National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster.

"After all these disasters across the country our resources have really been stretched," said McGowan, whose organization includes 51 nonprofits. "We've been struggling with it."

Thousands of people volunteer regularly without approaching "junkie" status. The American Red Cross, which is part of McGowan's organization, said 24,236 of its volunteers helped out after 137 disasters in 46 states last year, but most went to only one or two sites.

Dan Burton, a Samaritan's Purse project manager who has worked on disaster recoveries from Atlanta to Alaska, said the "junkies" provide a knowledge base and experience level that many less-experienced volunteers lack. Major disaster assistance work would be much more difficult without them, he said.

"There's an array of jobs to do, and they're just willing to do whatever it is that we have to do," said Burton, overseeing the rebuilding of a home that was destroyed by a tornado in Alabama last year.

With the spring severe weather season drawing near — and as severe storms this week roughed up the country music resort city of Branson, Mo., and devastated a small town in Kansas — volunteers are still cleaning up and rebuilding from 2011, when the United States had a record 12 weather disasters that caused at least $1 billion in damage. That's more major disasters than occurred all through the 1980s, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Aside from the dozens of tornadoes that damaged or destroyed about 24,000 homes in Alabama on April 27, there was the mega-twister that pummeled Joplin, Mo.; flooding in the Northeast from Hurricane Irene in August; wildfires in Texas and other parts of the Southwest; and flooding along the Mississippi River. And recovery work continues along the Gulf Coast from Katrina, the disaster that many people say spurred them to service in the first place.

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