A UMNS Report
By Linda Bloom*
Sept. 24, 2011
Bill Ohler recovers an offering plate at St. James United Methodist Church in Joplin, Mo. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.
When natural disasters occur, United Methodists use their connections — both inside and outside the denomination — to respond.
The sheer number and magnitude of U.S. disasters in 2011 means the church has had to rely even more heavily on faith — and that connectional support — in its ability to manage relief and recovery efforts.
The Rev. Cynthia Fierro Harvey, top executive of the United Methodist Committee on Relief, remains confident that church members will respond to the needs. “Historically, what we know is the people of The United Methodist Church are faithful,” she said.
UMCOR dedicates itself to long-term recovery, which means funding is usually allocated over a period of several years. Assessments to determine those recovery plans often take time.
The destruction of roads and bridges by floodwaters in the Northeast, for example, has made it difficult to do assessments in isolated rural communities.
In Pennsylvania, the Rev. Larry Siikanen, disaster response coordinator for the Susquehanna Annual (regional) Conference, believes it will take four or five months “until we even get the cleanup done” from the floods triggered by Tropical Storm Lee. After that, he said, the conference can determine how to help with rebuilding.
United Methodists respond to disasters in a very hands-on way: providing food, supplies and shelter; sending in teams to muck out houses; assembling cleaning supplies and emergency kits; offering counseling and aid referrals; and, finally, helping rebuild homes and communities.
In May of this year, Linda Cooper and her husband, Tom — trained as early responders —went to Alabama to assist with the end of tornado cleanup. This month, they’ve been helping out in communities in their own conference — Upper New York — affected by tropical storm flooding.
A child observes the world from his mother's side in the Dadaab refugee camp in northeastern Kenya. Photo by Paul Jeffrey/ACT Alliance.
“We are the presence of the church,” Linda Cooper said. “We heard people say, ‘The Methodists are here.’… They were excited to see us. One person wanted to take pictures of our Methodist work trailer to show that UMCOR was there.”
With 753 tornadoes and an estimated 364 deaths, April was the most active tornado month on record in the United States. Most of those deaths, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, resulted from a series of twisters that struck the South and leveled the much of town of Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Then came the Joplin, Mo., tornado on May 22, now ranked as the seventh deadliest in U.S. history, with a death toll of 157. Two days later, another 18 people died during tornado outbreaks in Oklahoma, Kansas and Arkansas.
The spring also brought a series of floods as rivers and creeks overflowed their banks. On June 24, thousands were forced to flee their homes in Minot, N.D., as waters rose.
At the time, Harvey noted, UMCOR’s general domestic disaster fund was low and the agency had to borrow money from its reserves to fill the initial requests from the annual conferences in the affected areas.
Eventually, UMCOR received $4.3 million in donations for its “spring storms” appeal and every dollar of that amount, she said, will be needed “to recover from all those tornados and floods of the spring.”
The 2011 hurricane season — which started June 1 and continues through November — brought a new round of disaster relief demands at the end of August as Hurricane Irene marched up the East Coast and Tropical Storm Lee was spawned later in the South.
Members of a United Methodist Volunteers in Mission Team from the Indiana Conference pose with homeowner Edward Ortiz in Minot, N.D. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.
The initial cleanup is continuing in parts of the Northeast flooded because of rains from Irene and Lee. Texas, in contrast, was scorched by uncontrolled wildfires that burned more than 1,500 homes.
UMCOR has established additional funds for Hurricanes 2011 and the Texas wildfires and is appealing for donations. One hundred percent of every donation is allocated for the designated disaster. “We honor donor intent,” Harvey explained. “That means if people gave money for spring storms, we can’t use it for the fires.”
Initial grants of $10,000 each — eight for annual conferences affected by Irene and Lee and one for the Southwest Texas Conference’s fire response — were drawn from the U.S. domestic disaster fund. The U.S. domestic disaster fund now has $382,000 to cover any other emergencies that might occur in the United States at any time.
UMCOR also has responded to international disasters this year – the Japan earthquake in March, the continuing recovery from the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and the threat of mass starvation in the Horn of Africa.
Long-term recovery takes time and money, Harvey pointed out, and UMCOR’s response is dictated by the needs of the denomination’s annual conferences within the disaster area. “When you think about all that happened in the spring, just in April and May alone, we’ve got to make that really stretch,” she said.
UMCOR has a domestic disaster staff of 10 — led by the Rev. Tom Hazelwood — and most are consultants who are deployed when needed. “We do a lot with very little,” Harvey explained. “We still have the same number of people to respond to multiple disasters.”
That’s why disaster-response training for United Methodists in annual conferences and congregations is crucial. “We try to tell people that you are UMCOR,” she explained. “We have to do everything we can to build our own capacity on the ground.”
Josny Mehu of the United Methodist Committee on Relief says these schoolrooms built by UMCOR in Haiti will help educate some 900 students a day. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.
The response of work teams after Hurricane Katrina was a catalyst for the creation of early-response teams, and most of the training is done at the annual conference level.
In the Upper New York Conference, Charlie Hodges, volunteer in mission coordinator for Cornerstone District and a staff member of Christ First United Methodist Church in Jamestown, trained 43 people to be early responders in May and June after the tornado outbreak.
“A very important part of it is personal safety — how to work in a toxic environment following a flood,” he said. “At the same time, the training involves ministering to people. We’re there to create a Christian presence at a disaster.”
Linda Cooper, a retired teacher and member of First United Methodist Church in Fredonia, N.Y., also is certified as a trainer and has been trying to get teams activated to assist with the flood cleanup now. “There’s a job for everybody,” she said.
It’s the contact with people that she enjoys the most. In Hackleburg, Ala., her team assisted a retired couple who needed all the items removed from their home so the house could be rebuilt. In the Middleburg, N.Y., area, she took a homeowner to Lowe’s to buy her a new toilet.
“Personally, I like being able to talk with homeowners and getting them the help that they need,” Cooper said.
Such training allows the church to expand its presence when disaster strikes.
“We really want people to be prepared,” Harvey said. The good news, she added, is that “every disaster trains you for the next one.”
*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her at http://twitter.com/umcscribe.
News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or firstname.lastname@example.org.