Disaster recovery still active for 2016 storms




When Earl Gall and his wife Gwynn of Sun City Center United Methodist Church responded to a flood disaster in Tennessee and were helping a young couple rebuild their home, the question came up.

Why would the retired couple come all the way from Florida to provide disaster relief?

Gall responded slowly and with emotion.

Wind and storm surge raked the east coast last October as Hurricane Matthew swept along the shoreline heading north. Shown here is the aftermath of a beach house in North Vilano Beach, Fla.

“That's what we are supposed to do,” said Gall, 72, his church's disaster response coordinator. “To help one another and share our love for our brothers and sisters.”

Each church in the Florida Conference is advised to have a disaster response coordinator. Gall fills that role in a volunteer capacity at his church. Some churches could have paid coordinators, depending on the level of need.

Church coordinators are trained by Pam Garrison, disaster response coordinator for the Florida Conference. Coordinators train other church volunteers and generally organize their church's efforts before, during and after natural disasters, such as hurricanes.

Garrison, a conference employee since 2005, has focused on disaster response since 2006.

Some churches in the conference are still in the recovery process after Hurricane Hermine, which came ashore from the Gulf of Mexico in September of last year, and Hurricane Matthew, which barreled through the Atlantic Ocean in October 2016. The two storms combined caused $1.6 billion in damages, as reported by the state through December of last year, making 2016 the most destructive hurricane season in Florida since 2004 and 2005.

Disaster recovery is an extension of social justice ministry, fundamental to The United Methodist Church. Many of the people the conference helps after storms are from the same vulnerable populations as those for whom it might advocate on issues related to civil and human rights.

“It's what we already do in our communities,” Garrison said. “This just happens to be a disaster venue.”

Garrison also emphasized disaster recovery is a year-round effort with the best response being preparation.

“If we've thought through and we've trained and we've put a plan together, then—even though that plan may go out the window when the disaster happens—we are better prepared to make good decisions in the disaster,” she said.

Another goal, Garrison said, is to remain calm—no knee-jerk reactions in times of crisis. If Plans A and B don't work, Plan C probably will.

When Garrison trains volunteer church disaster response coordinators like Gall, she wants them to gain a “10,000-foot view of disaster” so they can understand what their role is as an individual and what their church can do when a disaster strikes in their community. They focus on three Ps: partnerships, planning and the process of disaster.

Faith-based organizations are not in charge during large disasters; the government usually steps in. But churches do play an important role in long-term recovery.

Families are shown assessing damage on old highway AIA in Summer Haven, Fla., just south of St. Augustine, following Hurricane Matthew. The area is a popular tourist destination and home to several subdivisions.

After a disaster, power is restored, the debris is removed and storm victims use their insurance checks to repair their homes. But there is always a segment of the population that is either uninsured or underinsured or doesn't have the resources to recover on their own. They need someone to help them through that process.

The conference encourages churches to be a part of the process. Sometimes storm victims need help with financial resources, but often they need help navigating processes established by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, including how to spend money they are awarded by FEMA.

When a disaster looms or strikes, the conference and its churches use tools and best practices related to disaster case management to help storm victims put together disaster recovery plans.

“It's empowering them by helping them access resources,” Garrison said.

Much of what the conference does in long-term recovery is funded by the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), an agency charged with providing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, both in the United States and internationally.

UMCOR also provides training and guidance to conferences. UMCOR consultant Christy Smith says not all conferences focus on disaster response like Florida does because of its history and coastal position. Due to budgetary restraints, some conferences look to disaster response as the first place to cut.

Conversely, the Florida Conference's response framework is in place, Smith said. “(Garrison) can hit the ground running, right away. I am grateful and proud that Florida has continuously stayed disaster response-ready since 2004 (hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne).”

Domestically, UMCOR works with conferences to prepare them to work with their churches, so the churches can work with their congregants and the community.

“We all equip one another,” Garrison said.

That's important because while FEMA does not respond to every natural disaster, each event leaves someone in need.

In a conference full of retired Methodist church members, in a state where many types of natural disasters occur during the year—not just hurricanes—Garrison said that without volunteers, the conference would not have a disaster response ministry.

She cites as examples of dedicated volunteers—Gall and his fellow church members at Sun City Center, and others, such as those at Covenant UMC in The Villages, East Lake UMC in Palm Harbor and First UMC in DeLand.

Of particular importance are the early response teams of specially trained volunteers, who have learned how to tarp homes, remove debris and clean out flooded homes.

“Those are the teams that we really need when a disaster happens,” Garrison said, “because they come in shortly after the disaster occurs to help provide temporary assistance until other resources can kick in.”

Told of a situation where a Methodist church member in Venice responded to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 by driving relief supplies to Louisiana on behalf of his church, Garrison cautioned that such efforts should be coordinated with the churches and conference. When volunteers jump in to help but don't coordinate, she said, “then we can end up contributing to the disaster.

“We just created a secondary disaster. That's why we do training. Our job is to clear the way for (volunteer church members) to serve. But we can only do that if we know that they want to be involved in the process.”

The conference encourages people interested in being disaster response volunteers to contact their church offices. Gall says that since his congregation includes many snowbirds, his church needs more than one leader in disaster response. Hurricanes occur during the summer when many members are up north.

“It's very important to have enough responsible leaders to respond if there is a call by the conference,” Gall said.

--Ed Scott is a freelance writer based in Venice


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