Disaster response

Disaster Response

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
(Micah 6:8)

If you want to see God in action, step into a disaster zone. However, before you go, take time to know what to expect. Disaster Response personnel count on informed volunteers to help communities recover. News reporters are currently focused on the repercussions from Hurricane Florence. The devastation is enormous and tragic. Again we hear heroic stories of people rescuing neighbors and strangers. We see homes, businesses, and highways surrounded by  floodwaters from rivers still rising.

Houston is one year and one month post-Harvey. We are still very much in recovery mode. Thousands still live in temporary housing. Some are rebuilding their flooded homes as money and contractors are available. Others are taking buy-out offers. Still others are in flux, and don’t know what they’re going to do.

Recovery Takes A Very Long Time

I learned during the six months I worked in disaster recovery following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita that long-term recovery takes much longer than most people realize. Disasters unfold in three distinct phases: Rescue, Relief, and Recovery. Disaster professionals refer to the “Rule of Ten” in calculating how long it will take a community to fully recover from a major disaster. The relief phase lasts about ten times longer than the initial rescue phase. Communities can anticipate the long-term recovery phase will last approximately ten times longer than the relief phase.

During the rescue phase the primary focus is saving lives. After the storm has passed and helicopters and boats are no longer rescuing people and animals, the relief phase sets in. The emphasis shifts from saving lives to settling people into temporary shelters, restoring power, clearing roads, and ensuring critical services like medical facilities are operational.

Disaster Recovery Rule of Ten

In Houston, we were in active rescue mode for two weeks – 14 days. That’s how long it took for the water to start receding after falling from the sky and flowing from the reservoirs. Everyone along the Gulf Coast knows at least one person who left their home in a boat with whatever they could wear or carry. Most of us know many such people.

Applying the “Rule of Ten,” we were in relief mode for 140 days – or about four and a half months.  In our case I think it was actually longer. During this phase people moved from shelters into more permanent temporary housing. That may sound like a contradiction, but it means people left school cafeterias, church fellowship halls and giant convention centers to live in apartments, the second floor of their flooded homes, rental homes, or with friends and relatives.

During the relief phase people take stock of what was lost and what can be salvaged. Thousands of people learned first hand how to apply for financial assistance through their insurance companies and the FEMA application process.

What FEMA Does

A word about FEMA. The Federal Emergency Management Agency was never intended to be a personal bailout program for individuals. It was established to help communities rebuild critical infrastructure such as bridges, dams, highways, hospitals, and first responder facilities. FEMA has evolved to also provide individual assistance because of the number and magnitude of disasters we’ve seen in the last quarter century.

FEMA is a federal program, which means FEMA staff doesn’t come into an area until invited to do so after an area is declared a federal disaster. That happens when the state government asks for such a declaration. The state typically doesn’t respond until local officials call for help. In our modern world of instant and constant communication, all this transpires very quickly, so it often seems like FEMA gets involved instantly or criticized for not doing so

A community will be recovering long after the media trucks and reporters leave. Using the “Rule of Ten” principle, our projected long-term recovery phase from Hurricane Harvey may last up to four years – or longer. Disaster response teams were still working in New Orleans a full decade after Katrina made landfall.

Volunteers to the Rescue

This final and longest recovery phase unfolds mostly out of the public spotlight, with the exception of occasional updates around the anniversary of the disaster. During long-term recovery hundreds of paid staff and thousands of volunteers quietly work behind the scenes. They help families navigate the complex system of options available to address needs not readily covered by insurance or government assistance.

Caseworkers help individual families tap into resources to reestablish adequate housing. Mental health professionals provide workshops, counseling, and special events to help people process what they experienced to help them heal from the trauma. Volunteers come from across the country to help rebuild.

I knew virtually nothing of this until I was invited to help our regional churches deal with the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. I saw first hand how non-profit agencies come together to sort out who will handle which parts of the process. Some bring in food trucks. Others locate places to store supplies until they’re needed. Still others send teams to first muck out houses or churches and then rebuild them.

National VOAD

Communities impacted by disasters rely on volunteers from faith communities to help them recover. Over a hundred non-profit organizations work collaboratively under the umbrella of the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters (National VOAD). Guided by four core principles – Cooperation, Communication, Coordination, and Collaboration – member organizations provide leadership to build strong, resilient communities and deliver hope in times of need.

They set up temporary offices, hire and train support staff, and organize volunteer work crews to rebuild. They offer summer camp programs for children and workshops on how to prepare for the next disaster.

Good to Know Before You Go

Here are the top five things I learned during my brief time working with disaster recovery people:

1) Send cash, gift cards or checks to one of the National VOAD organizations rather than collecting supplies and donations. Donations of material goods require staff or volunteers to sort, store, and process for distribution. Cash and gift cards let people choose their own new things and support the local economy.

2) Ask first. It may seem obvious to you what a disaster-impacted person needs, but your priorities may not be theirs. Ask them what would be helpful.

3) If you go to help clean up, ask before you pitch. What looks like junk to you, may be a precious memory someone wants to keep awhile longer, no matter how badly damaged it is.

4) Help the helpers. Doing disaster work is physically challenging and emotionally exhausting. Sometimes the best way to help a community is to find out what the front-line disaster response personnel need.

5) Don’t try to explain God’s role in the disaster. Rather, be the face of God by listening, caring, and responding as best you can.

If you volunteer to help others recover after a disaster you will surely see God in action. To learn more about what a congregation and community will likely experience the first year following a disaster, read what I learned in A Ready Hope.