Flooding damage at Howardsville, Virginia; the bridge formerly carried Virginia Route 626 over the Rockfish River. The Library of Virginia photo

How people of faith can respond to natural disasters

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Guest column by George Abrams

When we think about faith, resiliency and natural disasters, we can approach that question from a micro, mezzo or macro perspective. At the micro level, how does our personal faith help us to be more resilient in times of natural disaster.  From a mezo perspective, how does our faith community or church help us to be more resilient in times of a natural disaster.  The macro question is how do our connectional (nationwide) faith communities help us individually to be more resilient in a natural disaster. I would like to address the macro arena, because I have 10 years of experience working in that area.

On Aug. 14, 1969, Hurricane Camille reared out of the Gulf of Mexico and came ashore in Mississippi.  It was the second of three category 5 hurricanes to strike North America in the 20th century.  It caused damage from the Mississippi coast all the way to Virginia.  It killed 259 people and caused $1.4 billion damage.

After Hurricane Camille, seven faith-based and voluntary organizations met and observed, that while numerous faith and voluntary organizations came together and assisted in specific ways, unnecessary duplication of effort resulted.  Some areas received extra help and in other areas needs were not even addressed. Further, there was only limited training available for the volunteers who responded. The seven organizations were Seventh Day Adventist, Southern Baptist Convention, Mennonite Disaster Services, St. Vincent DePaul, Christian Reformed World Relief Committee, Roman Catholic Disaster relief, and the Red Cross. These seven organizations decided to prepare better for natural disasters.

In 1975, they formed the National Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster (NVOAD).  The purpose was to “Coordinate, Cooperate, Communicate and Collaborate” with faith-based and voluntary organizations after a natural disaster.  National VOAD is the leader and voice for the nonprofit and faith-based organizations who work in all phases of a natural disaster – preparedness, response, relief, recovery and mitigation. The focus of NVOAD is resiliency following a natural disaster. Since 1975, National VOAD has expanded and now consists of 110 member organizations.

Over the years, NVOAD faith-based organizations have specialized in particular skills that improve their resiliency and coordination.  Examples include Church of the Brethren child care services, United Methodist case management training and grants, United Church of Christ training for hazardous materials spills, Episcopal Relief and Development financial grants, Islamic Relief USA, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance grants and volunteer housing, Tsu Chi Foundation (Buddhist), Mennonites Disaster Service rebuilding houses , NECHAMA (Jewish), Adventist Community Services donation management, Red Cross sheltering and feeding, LDS trained volunteers, Salvation Army, etc.  Volunteers from these faith based traditions find that helping others is a meaningful expression of their faith.

Prior to 1978, federal government disaster response was piecemeal.  In 1978, disaster relief and recovery was brought under Health and Human Development (HUD), where it remained for about five years.  President Jimmy Carter was still not satisfied with the coordination and cooperation following a disaster, so he signed the Stafford Disaster Relief Act, forming the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). One of the first responses by FEMA was to the Three Mile Island nuclear accident.

FEMA coordinates 14 federal agencies which have a total of 72 disaster programs.  These include agencies like the Bureau of Labor, who has disaster unemployment insurance, Health and Human Services who has disaster food stamps; Small Business Administration, with business loans, US Department of Agriculture with farm loans and grants; etc.

In the U.S. citizens have limited government assistance following a natural disaster.  That is one model of four found around the world.  Some national governments provide total disaster assistance and some provide no disaster assistance. We provide limited government assistance.  For example, a FEMA Individual Assistance maximum grant for a non-insured house is about $33,000. Much of FEMA assistance is used for “Public Assistance” (e.g. government infrastructure).  A state government generally has no financial assistance after a disaster.  Alaska is a notable exception with up to $12,000 for a non-insured family. A county government generally has no financial assistance following a disaster.

With “limited government assistance” being the norm, it is up to each community to organize for recovery.  FEMA has developed a model called the “Long Term Recovery Group” to help the community recover on its own.  This model was used most recently in the Clearwater Complex fire near Kamiah, Idaho, where fire burned over 50,000 acres and 42 homes were destroyed.  A long term recovery group (LTRG) was created in the community, outside faith based and voluntary agency assistance arrived, the houses were rebuilt, and lives were returned to a “new normal.”

What can each of us do?

Each person in this room can get involved in disaster assistance.

Join your faith-based disaster group and receive training.  Red Cross disaster training is ongoing.

In Spokane County we have both a county COAD (Community Organizations Active in Disaster – a member of NVOAD) and Inland Northwest VOAD which is a bi-state multi county organization. Both organizations are open to volunteers at any time and provide training or guidance on how to receive disaster training.

Following the 2016 wild fires, 10 homes were destroyed near ValleyFord, and two homes were destroyed near Davenport, as well as several homes on the Colville Reservation.  On Tuesday, September 27,th the first meeting was held with the purpose of creating a Long Term Recover Group (LTRG) for the Spokane area.  Volunteers are needed in Case Management, as are donations of money, personnel and materials.

Now is time for each of us to demonstrate how our faith makes our community more resilient following this natural fire disaster season by putting our faith into action.

Rev. Dr. L. George Abrams has served eight years as United Methodist disaster response coordinator for Pacific Northwest Conference. He was a panelist at Saturday’s Coffee Talk.

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