Main Menu

Lessons learned help churches prepare to meet neighbors’ needs during next hurricanes

Lessons learned help churches prepare to meet neighbors’ needs during next hurricanes

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Lessons learned help churches prepare to meet neighbors’ needs during next hurricanes

April 23, 2006    News media contact: Tita Parham* 
800-282-8011    Orlando {0475}

NOTE: See related article “SRC gives churches tips on preparing for next round of hurricanes,” e-Review FUMNS #0476.

An e-Review Feature
By Nancy E. Johnson**

While many Florida communities continue to recover from hurricanes Katrina and Wilma they are also gearing up for the next round of hurricanes.

Experts predict another active season, beginning June 1, and Florida United Methodists are putting together plans now for how they’ll help meet the needs in their communities.

In Broward and Miami-Dade counties, the poor and elderly suffered the most during the last hurricane season, according to the Rev. Debbie McLeod, superintendent of the Florida Conference’s South East District.

“These poor families with low-paying jobs don’t have enough food to eat on a good day. Then, the governor says stock up on non-perishables. Well, they can’t afford to save the food and not eat it,” McLeod said.

Government agencies and charitable organizations are set up to help hurricane victims, but McLeod says churches learned many of their neighbors slipped through the cracks in the system.

FLORIDA CITY — American Red Cross volunteers serve dinner to area residents, many of whom are field or migrant farm workers, in conjunction with the Branches after-school ministry, located on the grounds of Florida City United Methodist Church. Some of the food was also taken to a nearby retirement high rise for residents there. Branches is an outreach and after-school ministry sponsored by the Florida City church and the General Board of Global Ministries of The United Methodist Church. For a week after Hurricane Wilma hit the area the ministry's staff and volunteers offered afternoon activities to neighborhood kids while schools were closed. Photo by Tita Parham, Photo #06-341.

“In the rural areas, you have undocumented citizens who are afraid to go to FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency),” she said. “And then buses don’t run when there’s no electricity or gas, so there’s no way for people to get to FEMA sites for ice and food.”

The district is asking churches to identify a local disaster coordinator who will prepare their church’s plan and response and form congregational care teams that can identify vulnerable populations — widows, shut-ins, single mothers, people with special needs, mobile home residents, the elderly. The teams should get contact information for those special populations, find out where they’re staying during the storm and then follow up with them after the storm.

“We’re asking that they check on their own congregation first, which takes about a day; then, remove debris from the doors of the church so they can get in the kitchen and start cooking meals. By day two, start walking the neighborhoods looking for people in need,” McLeod said, adding churches must get to know their neighbors.

During the last hurricane season McLeod said she discovered cultural issues that affect a church’s response. Many of the Haitians in her community don’t like to eat cold food, so she has suggested churches cook rice, beans and other staples for them. Also, churches in her district received many calls from elderly people trapped on the upper floors of their apartment complexes.

“If someone is on a walker or in a wheelchair and the elevator is out for two weeks, they can’t get out to find food, so we’re challenging churches to find out where those seniors are,” she said.

The Rev. David Harris, pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Arcadia, said his community escaped last year’s hurricanes, but it’s still recovering from the triple threat of hurricanes Charley, Frances and Jeanne in 2004. When those storms hit he said there was no coordinated relief structure in place, so he took the lead in establishing a VOAD (Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster) group. Members of VOAD work together to respond to disasters within the community. As a group they are better connected and continue to develop in their understanding of disaster relief as a response community, rather than as individual agencies and nonprofit groups, according to Harris.

Harris said he learned “some very important lessons” while responding to the 2004 storms. As volunteers from the church provided flood buckets and other services to hurricane victims they noticed some of the people they helped were abusing the process, taking more than they needed and selling some of the supplies they had received.

“As volunteers pointed out the inequities, God spoke to my heart,” Harris said. “I told them, ‘If they come back for food twenty times, I don’t care. It’s not about being equal and fair.’ I realized that if I tried to police it I would loose the opportunity to help our community.”

ARCADIA — Trinity United Methodist Church served as a distribution and coordination center for response efforts after hurricanes Charlie, Frances and Jeanne hit the area in 2004. Numerous nonprofits and organizations, including volunteers from the relief agency Service International, used the church as a staging area for their relief efforts in the surrounding communities. Photo by the Rev. David Harris, Photo #06-342.

Today, Harris says they are better prepared than they were two years ago. “The last time, there was no one in the community saying, ‘Go to this church to get food or water’ or ‘Go here for cleaning supplies,’ ” he said. “But now, we’ll be able to get word to those in the community of where the resources are being distributed.”

Harris says the best advice he has for other churches is to set up a coordinated response plan for disaster relief and take advantage of the training the conference provides to help churches develop a plan.

McLeod’s district is identifying the churches that were able to help the community during last hurricane season. She’s getting commitments from them to do outreach again this year. She is also asking churches in upper middle class areas to collect relief materials for poorer church communities.

If the weather experts are mistaken and Floridians make it to Nov. 30 without enduring a hurricane, McLeod has a contingency plan. “We’ll give some of the food to the food bank; then, we’ll cook a spaghetti dinner and invite the neighborhood to come out and celebrate!”


This article relates to Disaster Response.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Nancy E. Johnson is a Florida-based, freelance television and print journalist.