In one spot, storm victims receive all manner of aid

05/11/2007 1:01 AM

01/24/2008 5:15 PM

Relief center has basics, extras and even hugs

Katie Britton has shown her daughter their destroyed home in Greensburg, so 2-year-old Eva Jo knows why they can't go back. But that doesn't make the ordeal any easier. So after picking up vouchers for gasoline and other expenses, Britton found something else on a table of donated items.

"I even got a little ball for her," said Britton, who taught third grade at Delmer Day Elementary School, also destroyed in last week's tornado. "She was so excited."

Britton was one in a steady stream of tornado victims who visited a relief center set up in the Barclay College gymnasium by several government and nonprofit organizations.

"This has kind of morphed into a one-stop shop," said Monique Garcia of the Salvation Army.

Emergency management officials estimate 961 homes in Kiowa County were destroyed and an additional 105 received so much damage as to be uninhabitable. Also destroyed were 67 mobile homes and 110 businesses.

The Salvation Army, assisted by young volunteers from Americorps, takes up half of the gym floor. People seeking help are interviewed before receiving vouchers and other help. Besides the cash vouchers -- a typical household of five would qualify for $600 -- food and household items fill long tables, while piles of donated clothes are stacked on the bleachers.

On the other side of the gym, employees of FEMA, the Small Business Administration and other federal agencies have set up to help with longer-term needs.

Federal employee Crystal Flax was helping people replace their Social Security and Medicaid cards -- and recalling how one elderly Greensburg resident gave hers to a stranger and hasn't seen it since.

"People need to be aware of identity theft," she said.

On the stage, workers from the Department of Motor Vehicles and other state agencies have set up temporary offices.

Tornado victims -- many of them bruised from the storm or sunburned from salvaging belongings -- arrive looking a little shell-shocked. Few go more than a few minutes before recognizing someone else who's lived through the same catastrophe. They hug and exchange news of relatives and friends.

Stan and Dianne Navarette and their four children had lived in Greensburg for one week when the tornado destroyed their home. She's a physical therapist and he's the circulation manager of the Kiowa County newspaper. They're staying with relatives in Dodge City. At the Barclay gym, they filled a box and a couple of plastic bags with food and clothing.

"Everybody's very helpful," Dianne said. "It feels like they're doing all they can."

Stan, however, didn't feel the same way about their insurance company.

"They just don't get it," he said.

On the stage, Greensburg residents Eric and Misty Stone sat down in succession with representatives of several state agencies while replacing their driver's licenses, marriage certificate and other records.

Asked what documents her family lost in the tornado, Misty said, "Everything."

"Some of the things I didn't even think of, like the (children's) immunization records, so I'm grateful they're here," she said.

"A lot of people don't know" what they've lost, said Carmen Alldritt, director of the state Department of Revenue's division of vehicles, who was working at one of the tables.

A little while later, Alldritt and a co-worker picked up the children of another couple seeking help and walked them around the gym, choosing a couple of toys, as the parents sought help replacing documents.

"We all just hug each other up," Alldritt said.

Although state employees were also taking applications for unemployment benefits, several tornado victims said their futures were too much in the air to fill one out.

Longtime Greensburg resident Eric Sears, who managed the Dillons supermarket, said he'll work at the chain's Pratt store but hopes his old store will be rebuilt.

"They need to make a decision," he said.

Among the tables of donated goods, Karla Alvarez and her two young daughters filled a sack with snacks, even though Alvarez said "I don't have anywhere to put it."

Leslie Fleener, with a young daughter and son in tow, said she'd found just what she needed to help clean up --"garbage bags and flashlights and sunblock -- that was great."

Most relief workers expect the Barclay gym center to be open through at least Sunday, after which the effort will probably continue elsewhere.

On the lawn outside the gym, members of a Texas church have set up a mobile kitchen to help feed the helpers.

Britton, the third-grade teacher, was sunburned and joked that she wasn't replacing any IDs that required a photo. But though she came here looking for help, she was giving solace, too, jumping up to hug the many children she recognized. She told one boy she still had photographs of him on a class field trip.

"It was nice," she said of the help she received Thursday. "I have nothing."

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