Let’s Talk: About Disaster Response
by Rev. Diane Weible
Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma devastated communities in Florida and Texas as well as islands in the Caribbean. I heard one newscaster say it something like this: “Harvey shed tears in excess of anything we have ever experienced and Irma unleashed fury such as we have never seen in a storm.”
Even today, a week later, some of those communities look as if the storm happened last night. Residents still cannot get to areas in the lower Florida Keys. Residents who stayed or have returned are asking for fuel and food and water. Communities in Texas are still struggling.
At our Conference Council meeting last week one of the items on our agenda was to ask the question, “How we can help these communities?” I referred Council members to one of the best books I have read on disaster recovery: “Help and Hope: Disaster Preparedness and Response Tools for Congregations“. This book was compiled by Church World Service from first-hand stories of survivors of other disasters—Katrina, Haiti, the tornado in Joplin, Missouri, and from tragedies such as Newtown.
One of the best explanations of what not to do was the image of the traveling stuffed animal trailer. Well-meaning people want to do something to help. They see the suffering of their neighbors, especially the children, and they pack up clothes and stuffed animals and send it to the devastated areas. Or, they pack up their cars with these items and drive down to the impacted area and ask what they can do to help. This is all good and well-meaning but it causes problems.
The first is that if you show up in the immediate aftermath of a storm, when first responders are trying to get food and clothing and water to those affected, you become one of the people who needs food and water and shelter, items that are already in short supply. And, if you come only to drop off clothing and stuffed animals (or mail them to the nearest church), without being told that these are the items that are needed, you risk burdening these communities with having to spend precious time sorting stuffed animals and clothing and figuring out what, if anything, can be used.
So the traveling stuffed animal trailer is a trailer which is loaded with all the clothing and stuffed animals that this community cannot use at this time and have no where to store. When the next disaster hits, the trailer is sent to that location and, most likely, sits there waiting to be filled with more things before being sent on to the next place.
What this means is that as much as we want to help, the two best things we can do right now is to pray and to send money through the United Church of Christ Emergency USA Fund (see information below on how to do that).
And… there is more.
Every time there is a disaster like this the United Church of Christ reminds us that we are there for the long-term recovery. After first responders have gone home and when the rebuilding
begins the UCC will be there. We are still sending work groups to areas hit by Hurricane Matthew and Hurricane Sandy and for flooding victims in Louisiana and West Virginia. And, one day, there will be a call for volunteers to help with work projects in Houston and in Florida. In our conversation on Saturday, Conference Council committed to coordinate the sending of at least one work team (hopefully more!) to these hard-hit areas once a call for volunteers goes out. When that happens, we will be looking for volunteers to go. I know many of our churches already do this and that is wonderful. But, if your church cannot send its own team, we will find a way to put a Conference team together. So stay tuned.
For now, though, please keep the victims of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma in your prayers and remember that you are part of a denomination where 100% of your gift will go to the hardest hit areas. Your gifts to Our Church’s Wider Mission have already created the infrastructure that allows us to do that.