disaster response

Hope Abounds in Disaster Zones

Hope abounds in disaster zones. You have to look beyond the mountains of rubble, but it’s been there in abundance in very disaster zone I’ve been in. Many times I’ve seen people give generously and make enormous sacrifices to render help after a natural disaster. We still have people helping in Houston where Harvey hit two years ago. Volunteers are at work hard in Puerto Rico where Maria hit only weeks later. People are now responding to the havoc left behind by Hurricane Dorian. This week Imelda is has dumped enough rain on Houston and surroundings areas to earn the title 5th wettest rain event in the city’s history. Some folks haven’t rebuilt from Harvey, or just finished, and now have to do it all over again.

I’ve experienced several hurricanes, as an evacuee fleeing the storm, a resident trying to navigate in a disaster-impacted community, and as a volunteer lending assistance. What I’ve experienced and witnessed have led me to have great respect for hurricanes and other disasters because they draw out our best instincts to help one another. I don’t like disasters; but I do like the way people pull together to help one another through them and the massive clean-up process after them.

Help in Helpful Ways

The wind hardly dies down before the media reports some celebrity rushing in to help. But before you jump in a boat or car to go help, make sure the local emergency first responders are ready for you. Professional disaster responders dread dealing with well-meaning, but inexperienced and unsolicited amateurs who show up too soon expecting too much.

While heroes who rush in first make headlines, the equally important heroes are the many people who send gift cards and cash donations to disaster response organizations. Over a hundred credible non-profit organizations work collaboratively through the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters (National VOAD). Member organizations typically have minimal staff, but access to networks of thousands of volunteers they can call on to help with the clean-up operations. Cash donations enable disaster response organizations to hire additional staff to coordinate those volunteers, hire case managers to help folks put together a recovery plan, supervise demolition and rebuilding teams of volunteers, and maximize available resources. You can find a list of these organizations and information on how to be most helpful at https://www.nvoad.org.

First, Don’t Become Another Problem   

People too often use someone else’s disaster as an opportunity to pass along their unwanted stuff. This is known in the disaster response world as the secondary disaster. Storage facilities in disaster zones are hard to come by; as are volunteers to manage the onslaught of unsolicited donations. There may be a call for food, water, hygiene supplies, furniture, clothing, books, and on and on – later. Until you get confirmation that what you’re planning to send is actually wanted and needed, it is more helpful to save the cost of shipping and send cash or gift cards instead.

Volunteers Are Essential

Disaster Response personnel rely on volunteers to help with the recovery process, so volunteers are wanted, needed, and appreciated – when their arrival is planned and coordinated. Just showing up adds stress to an already highly stressful situation. Before you go, coordinate with local personnel about where will you sleep, how will you eat, and who will organize the work projects. You’ll also need to confirm what supplies you need to bring. Don’t assume local stores will be open or stocked. After Harvey I had to go to a town 90 miles away to restock supplies at the staging center set up in our neighborhood. Don’t just show up. Coordinate with an approved disaster response organization so your presence is truly helpful rather than causing yet another challenge for someone to manage.

Expect to Witness Miracles

I’ve witnessed some amazing things in the recovery world. Some folks might consider them coincidences. Others might call them miracles. Whatever you label them, I’ve seen remarkable examples of perfect timing mixed with extreme generosity and extraordinary compassion. Even in the midst of rubble and despair, there is evidence that the milk of human kindness still flows .

One proof of that took place at a Houston Food Bank after Hurricane Katrina drove 250 million displaced people from Louisiana to Houston emergency shelters. The line at one of the many neighborhood food pantries was out the door and around the block. The volunteer staff informed the supervisor they’d have to close because they were about out of food and supplies. The supervisor decided that as long as there were people in line, they’d stay open, even if all they could give out was a cup of water and an encouraging word. The volunteers were taking the last few items off the shelf when a truck pulled up at the rear door to the facility, full of more food and other supplies. Every single person in line got something that evening.

Closed Doors, Open Window

A man returned to work after evacuating and admitted to his friend how he dreaded going to check on his home. The friend offered to go with him so he wouldn’t have to face the devastation alone. The homeowner in this story was an active member of a local church. His friend had given up on the church years earlier. When they got to the house none of the doors would open. They peered in through a window and saw why. About a foot of mud covered the entire floor, preventing them from pushing open any of the doors.

They walked around the house and found a window that wasn’t locked. They pried it open and crawled into the mud and muck. The home owner stood stunned by the mess everywhere. His friend looked around for anything that might be salvageable. He saw a piece of ceramic something sticking up through of the mud. He pulled it out and rubbed the mud off with his shirt. It was his turn to be stunned. The plaque read, ‘When God closes a door, he opens a window.’

“I think I might want to go to church with you sometime,” he told his friend.

A Wrong Address Becomes The Right One

Storms tend to blow away street signs, so it’s hard for out-of-town volunteer crews to find their away around town. An out-of-town volunteer team finished their day of tearing out molded drywall and flood-soaked furniture. They asked the elderly couple at the house for directions to their assignment for the next day. When the crew leader showed the couple their week’s assignment list, the couple stared at him in disbelief.

“You were at the wrong house today,” the husband told him. “Where you are now isn’t the address on your list for today.”

The crew leader assured the couple that wasn’t a problem. “You obviously needed the help and we’re glad we could help you.”

The woman started crying and shaking her head. “No, you don’t understand. We’ve been so overwhelmed. We didn’t know what to do or where to turn. Last night we decided that if something didn’t happen today to give us some sign of hope, we’d just take all our medications and hope that would put an end to this.”

“Then you showed up,” said the husband.

Signs of Hope

Disasters are horrible. They do unbelievable damage that you really have to see in person to appreciate. They make people homeless. They put businesses permanently out of business. They bankrupt people trying to rebuild their homes and lives. It typically takes months to re-establish the community’s basic infrastructure, and years to fully recover. However, the outpouring of generosity and labor, combined with compassion and help total strangers offer one another, is enough to restore one’s faith in God and hope for humanity.

I wouldn’t wish a disaster on anyone; but when one comes along, it’s another opportunity to set aside things that typically divide us to focus on what unites us. We all need food, shelter, and people around us who care about what happens to us. Natural disasters motivate us to go out of our way to help strangers get those things.


A Ready HopeInformation for this blog came from the book I co-authored with Carol Flores, who has been engaged in various aspects of disaster response since Hurricane Katrina entered out lives in 2005. A Ready Hope: Effective Disaster Ministry for Congregations is available from Amazon  or the publisher Rowman Littlefield

 


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Mayflower Chronicles coverComing in 2020: Mayflower Chronicles: The Tale of Two Cultures. In honor of the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower, I’m launching a new historical fiction about the very real people and events among two cultures that helped shape the United States of today.

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