The journey towards wholeness includes a case manager

Story by Laura Bray

You’ve read about work teams, about Volunteer Villages, about rebuilding lives that Hurricane Harvey rent asunder last August. How do we know who needs our help? Where do we send the hands and feet of Christ? While each of the thousands of cases is unique, the process itself follows an established pattern. To demonstrate how survivors move through the recovery and case management process, meet “Barbara,” a fictional (but typical) survivor of Harvey, from anywhere in the Rio Texas Conference.

Barbara heard about our local case management office from a friend whose home also suffered extensive damage. A single mother with two school-aged kids, Barbara works full-time and in the aftermath of the storm, struggles to get by. She wanted to handle the home repairs herself, but she is just too overwhelmed and doesn’t know where or how to start. Barbara doesn’t normally ask for much outside assistance, but she finally realizes that if resources are out there and available, she owes it to her kids to check into it. So she leaves a voicemail at the case management office.

That voicemail generates an email to a disaster case management supervisor, who assigns the case to “Sue” (a fictional but typical case manager). Sue contacts Barbara to set up an intake interview. Sue wants to know where Barbara feels most comfortable for a meeting. “We could meet here in the office, at your home, or we could use the conference room at the Aransas Pass airport. Or maybe the Whataburger on Main Street is more convenient. Whatever works for you.” They set a time and date at the airport.

On the day of the meeting, Sue immediately notices how haggard and tired Barbara looks. After introductions and getting some basic information like address, phone number, and names and ages of family members, Sue gently asks Barbara to tell her story of how Hurricane Harvey upended her life.

Sue learns that the storm damaged the roof, and Barbara hasn’t found anyone to fix it. Many of the family’s personal belongings were ruined either by the days-long power outage (it pained her to throw out all the food in the refrigerator and freezer; she had just been shopping) or by the rain that the storm flung into their home through windows and under doorways. She has been trying to replace everything little by little, but often, it’s a choice between paying the electric bill or getting her son a replacement pair of sneakers. She used what little savings she had for expenses when they evacuated the area for a week last August. She has no more spare funds.

And then there’s all the FEMA paperwork. Barbara has never dealt with any kind of government bureaucracy, with all its many questions and forms to complete. FEMA has denied her claim, and she doesn’t know what to do.

Barbara can’t afford to replace the sofa in the den that the rain ruined, or the television that her children enjoy watching after school. A friend lent her a small television, but she wants to get one of their own and return the loaner. Try as she might, she simply cannot fix the back door, which ever since the storm, leaks every time rain arrives. Sue jots down notes as Barbara speaks.

Sue smiles reassuringly and lets Barbara know that the Rio Texas Conference and UMCOR will do everything they can to help her get back on her feet. Sue gives Barbara the number for the local volunteer group providing counseling services and encourages her to call for an appointment. “Getting your life back in order is hard work,” says Sue. “It helps to have an outside resource to talk to, someone to listen. They can help you learn how to handle everything, where to start.”

Sue at last asks Barbara, “What would ‘fully recovered’ look like to you? At what point do you think we’ll be ‘done’?” Barbara thinks for a moment and says, “When I can relax on a Saturday morning with my kids on the sofa, watching their favorite programs, and not have to worry about replacing the food or the furniture or the leak under the back door.”

As they close out their meeting, Barbara says, “Thank you for listening. Sometimes it seems like no one does.” They shake hands; Sue will let Barbara know soon when an assessor will visit to look at the damage to the home.

Sue quickly reaches out to a local agency to arrange for some assistance for Barbara’s utility bills, to take some pressure off the family budget. She gives Barbara the number for Legal Aid and together they call and get help with her FEMA appeal. Another call to the Salvation Army starts the process of furniture replacement. Sue then gets in touch with “Bob,” one of the local assessors, to schedule a time to visit Barbara’s home to evaluate the damage.  In the meantime an Early Response Team from San Antonio arrives to install a tarp on Barbara’s leaky roof. They move the family’s belongings out of the way and remove damaged drywall and flooring.

In the weeks that follow, Sue and Barbara meet weekly to monitor her recovery process. During that same time, Sue takes Barbara’s case to the Unmet Needs committee of the long term recovery group to seek funding for materials. Not long after, Barbara shares that construction materials arrived at her home, really cheering her up as a visible reminder that her home would be soon fixed. A team of Amish permanently repaired the roof, and then a Volunteers in Mission team from north Texas arrives to repair the drywall and flooring. It’s messy, but a work in progress.

The full recovery process takes months to finish, and Sue is with Barbara every step of the way. The process won’t be “complete” until Barbara can sit with her kids on the weekend with a bowl of cereal and the television tuned to those favorite programs. Sue says, “We want them to feel like they can move forward.”

Many thanks to Disaster Case Management Supervisor Kim Pickens and Case Manager Zelina Alvarado for their contributions to this story.