Pitching in: Disaster recovery takes many forms

NORCROSS, Ga. – Survivors of flood, fire, earthquake or whirling winds will be left with different needs in the aftermath of disaster, but there's one they all share: the need for a sympathetic ear.

That's what makes disaster recovery a ministry open to all, said participants in the Southeastern Jurisdiction Disaster Academy at the North Georgia Conference's Simpsonwood Retreat outside Atlanta this week. 

Lori Beth Seelgen, North Naples UMC, talks with Vivian Brack, First UMC, Winter Haven
Lori Beth Seelgen of North Naples UMC chats with Vivian Brack of First UMC, Winter Haven, at the Southeastern Jurisdiction Disaster Recovery Academy held near Atlanta. Photo by Anne Dukes.

Vivian Brack of First UMC, Winter Garden, was among 17 attendees from the Florida Conference to attend the training session, which drew nearly 100 from across the region. She uses a walker but stresses that this has not kept her from volunteering to help in times of disaster. She said she volunteered twice after twisters in Alabama.

While she couldn’t swing a hammer, she could cook and serve food, and more importantly, she could listen to victims recount their ordeals.

“I found that people had to tell their stories while it was still fresh in their minds,” she said.

“I’ve been very thankful for the spiritual training that has been offered to me. … It helped me help them get their house back in order.”

Pam Garrison, disaster recovery manager for the Florida Conference, co-chaired the planning team for the four-day academy with North Georgia's Mike Yoder. The training was supported with $5,000 from the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) and included partnership with the United Methodist Volunteers in Mission (UMVIM).

The event offered participants a chance to expand their skills, learn new ones and connect with like-minded volunteers from almost all 15 conferences in the Southeast.

Designed to educate all, whether new or experienced responders or somewhere in between,  the 2013 academy offered tracks in Basic Disaster Training, Advanced Early Response Teams, Connecting Neighbors and Disaster Response Coordinator/UMVIM Advanced training.

The Florida group agreed that there are different phases in disaster recovery, including early days with flood buckets and health kits and later duties of cleaning up mud and muck. But the job of “spiritual listener” is key throughout.

Anne Hasler of South Shore UMC, Riverview, recalled her experiences responding to storms in Tennessee in April 2011.

“It was really a humbling experience to learn that we were the answer to someone’s prayer," she said. Her construction skills helped rebuild where there was destruction, and she revisited the area on the one-year anniversary of the disaster. 

Pam Garrison
Pam Garrison, disaster recovery manager for the Florida Conference, helped plan a regional training for UMC responders. Florida Conference file photo.

Knowing when and how to help are important areas of training, said Clayton Seelgen, who with his wife, Lori Beth, attends North Naples UMC. The two have been volunteering since the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 spurred them to help in Baton Rouge, La.

Since then, they have seen how UMVIM has been effective by cooperating and interacting with other disaster response experts, including the Red Cross, Salvation Army, National Guard, the Baptist Church and other faith groups, as well as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

“There are all kinds of jobs to do, from transportation to communications to feeding and ministry, and the timeframes when these needs can be met vary as well," Seelgen said.

"All of these [academy] training modules are important.”

The volunteers interviewed had worked in the aftermath of disasters ranging from fires, tornadoes, hurricanes and even severe flooding last June in their home state.

Dr. William Finnin, pastor at First UMC, Live Oak, Fla., was attending the academy while also fielding calls from his hometown.  Live Oak is still trying to recover after Tropical Storm Debby dumped more than 30 inches of rain in a 24-hour period, driving 20,000 people from their homes.

“The first two days, the Red Cross and Salvation Army and National Guard were there, dealing with flooding and sinkholes and rescues," Finnin said.

"Other response groups have helped with the long-term recovery phase, which includes people using FEMA money, insurance money and family money to rebuild.  And many homes were simply abandoned.” 

"Spiritual care is a big part of the job, in addition to cleaning mud-covered walls." --

Clayton Seelgen, North Naples UMC

Often local church disaster response teams step into their biggest role after the initial fervor to help starts to fade.

“When the major groups leave, then it’s the locals who must organize and coordinate long-term recovery, bringing together police and fire departments, churches and non-profits and also securing grants and gifts,” Finnin said.

Markae Rupp of First UMC, Lakeland, is a retired local government employee whose career experience boosts her effectiveness as a volunteer. She has responded to several hurricanes and fires as an emergency manager and knows how to interact with agencies, but said the training she has received as a United Methodist volunteer has helped her with the spiritual part of the job.

“I can learn a lot from this side,” she said.

The United Methodist approach stresses tradition and training that has made volunteers effective and welcome, no matter where they go, academy participants said.

“We don’t go until we’re invited,” said Seelgen, who volunteered in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which hit northeastern states late last year.

“Getting there when you’re needed and when you can do what you do best is important.”

He agreed with Brack that sometimes that's listening and understanding how exhausting it is to live through a disaster.

“Spiritual care is a big part of the job, in addition to cleaning mud-covered walls,” Seelgen said.

Those sentiments were among core values listed by UMCOR consultant Christy Smith, who told the group, “We are about bringing the presence of Christ to places where pain is.”

* Anne Dukes is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.

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