Posts tagged with: disaster relief

tusAt the bottom of this storm and tornado roundup from The Weather Channel, there is a powerful slideshow on the devastation in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Alabama. The death count in the region stands at 31. Mississippi’s Governor Phil Bryant described yesterday as “The most active tornado day in Mississippi history.”

Some people forget that it is denominational church agencies that often are the first to meet the material needs and bring comfort to the afflicted. Southern Baptist Disaster Relief is well known for their rapid response. I covered that agency more in depth in the “The Church and Disaster Relief: Shelter from the Stormy Blast” in the Spring 2011 issue of Religion & Liberty. The article is a good introduction into how church agencies are more efficient and effective than governmental agencies when it comes to disaster response. This is in part due to the fact that they already have built in relationships and organizations on the ground.

The Southern Baptist Church has almost 90,000 trained volunteers—including chaplains—and 1,550 mobile units for feeding. They have chainsaw teams, power generators, shower and laundry facilities, water purification devices, and offer child-care, to name just a few of their services. I saw firsthand how Hurricane Katrina really multiplied the power and commitment of religious agencies to provide lasting hope through a long-term commitment to rebuilding. It might surprise some readers that Christian churches are still sending volunteers and money to the Gulf Coast which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

People who face devastation need to feel like they are not alone. A human touch that has the power to reflect the incarnated Christ who was sent to lift up and resurrect a disordered world is invaluable. The great promise of Christianity is that the Lord is a God of recovery and restoration. While government can offer services and help, it can’t offer the kind of hope that has overcome the things of this world.

fireIt doesn’t take much snow to wreak havoc in the Deep South. I remember one time being immediately sent home from high school on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi for the lightest dusting of snow. But yesterday, heavier snow in the Deep South left thousands and thousands of people stranded at schools, work, and on the road. Atlanta, Ga. and Birmingham, Ala. were two metropolitan areas hit hard. Unfortunately, it’s still an ongoing problem. USA Today has great images, video, and a write up on the seriousness of the situation, which has caused at least 12 deaths. Julie McKinney, of AL.Com, has compiled some great tales of good deeds and generosity in the Birmingham area. Here are just a few of the stories McKinney highlighted: 

We were pulled from the ditch twice on 36 right past the senior center by a man with a dually truck. There were 4 wheelers out pulling smaller cars too. It was scary, but so nice to see the true concern for your neighbors, to get out in the cold and rescue people when you could be inside safe and warm. Much appreciated. My church The Connection was helping collect the kids from school and also fed us last night and anyone else who could get there. – Sarah Parish Mccoy via Facebook

My daughter got completely stuck in the ice leaving EBSCO in Mount Laurel. Our #snowangel is Paige Thompson and her family in Highland Park. They took her into their home for the night! Made her dinner and hot chocolate. I can’t thank them enough. — Wayne Rogers

I thought I was going to be spending the night in my car at the Chevron on Old Springville Rd, but a nice man named Herman drove me home! If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be home safe and sound with my family. He went above and beyond and extremely far out of his way to help me. Thank you Herman!!! — Misty Murphy Westover

Stopped in Alabaster…driving a front wheel drive, left my purse at home …no money…I get to the gas station…gentleman offered to pay my gas & something to eat…this is truly my #snowangel! Grateful for blessings such as him! — Naomi Raye Rabago

Read all of the good deeds complied by McKinney here. Even more have been compiled on a Facebook page. And read about Mark Meadows, a Chick-fil-A owner, who saw an “opportunity to help” those stranded in the snow. When it comes to charitable acts and meeting the needs of your neighbor, the citizens of Alabama are well known for rallying to aid those who find themselves in a dangerous or precarious situation. I wrote more extensively about this in “The Church and Disaster Relief: Shelter from the Stormy Blast.”

missstateAt least $8 million will be allocated to fund a new parking garage near David Wade Stadium at Mississippi State University. MSU, which is in Starkville, Miss. and far from the Gulf Coast, is 250 miles from Hurricane Katrina’s landfall. Jeff Amy of the Associated Press has more,

Part of a hotel-convention center complex planned around a former cotton mill, it’s blocks from Mississippi State’s football stadium. That’s not unlike the condominiums built for University of Alabama football fans in Tuscaloosa using Katrina-related tax breaks and subsidized borrowing.

Like Tuscaloosa, Starkville was part of the presidentially declared disaster zone, and Edwards said spending is appropriate because it helps fuel “a comprehensive recovery.”

While Mississippi funds the Starkville project and can’t seem to find uses for millions in other available funding, some recovery programs in coastal areas still visibly affected by the storm are out of money.

For example, a $3 million forgivable loan program in Hancock County has committed all its funds to local businesses trying to rebuild. Storm surge was at its most extreme in Hancock County, where Katrina made its final landfall.

“We had far more applicants than we had funds,” said Tish Williams, executive director of the Hancock County Chamber of Commerce. “We were the hardest hit and the last to get.”

Mississippi still has $872 million in unspent federal aid for Katrina relief. The AP story looks into other spending endeavors that seem to be unrelated to Katrina’s aftermath.

Frankly, anybody who witnessed and had to live through the devastation along the Mississippi Gulf Coast should be sickened by the report. Federal disaster relief, especially when we are talking about the billions of dollars given to Mississippi after Katrina, proves just too tempting to mismanage and abuse for state bureaucrats and politicians.

After a disaster strikes, very few organizations have the vast resources and expertise to feed so many people as Southern Baptist Disaster Relief. They have received praise from countless victims and organizations, including The American Red Cross. After Katrina, they were the first to have hot food tents up and running, feeding tens of thousands three meals a day in many communities along the Gulf Coast.

Most state Baptist Conventions have their own disaster relief agencies that in many instances have the capacity to function independently without national denominational assistance. Here are a few facts that give a sense of their commitment and network for disaster relief:

Southern Baptists have 82,000 trained volunteers—including chaplains—and 1,550 mobile units for feeding, chainsaw, mud-out, command, communication, childcare, shower, laundry, water purification, repair/rebuild and power generation. SBDR is one of the three largest mobilizers of trained disaster relief volunteers in the United States, along with the American Red Cross and The Salvation Army.

Below is a short report from ABC World News Tonight on the work Southern Baptist Disaster Relief is coordinating in Moore, Oklahoma. The community of Moore sustained severe damage as well as loss of life when an EF5 tornado with wind speeds over 200 mph touched down on May 20.

mooreOne of the powerful scenes after Hurricane Katrina was church organizations cutting their way through the roads with chainsaws so they could set up hot meal tents the very next day. Church responders have transformed into “well oiled machines” and are being praised by The Red Cross and federal agencies.

Because of Katrina, and tornadoes like the ones that decimated parts of Tuscaloosa, Ala. and Joplin, Mo., churches in those communities can offer a level of expertise to the local houses of worship in Oklahoma. Christian organizations, who have already mobilized for Oklahoma, are vital not just in the initial response, but will remain a force in the community long after the news cameras and headlines vanish.

One of the most significant problems after Katrina was that some victims, because of the shock of having everything decimated that they physically own, often became paralyzed by inaction and fall into long-term dependency. Many church agencies are now highly trained to handle these situations and can come alongside victims to help them take the first initial steps important for putting their life back together.

It is becoming much harder to make the once valid criticism that evangelical churches in America do not focus enough of their efforts and attention to serving the poor and meeting physical needs. Natural disasters, many of which have hit some of the most religious regions of America, have mobilized armies of evangelical volunteers and workers who are transformed by the words of Christ who commanded us to simply “love each other.” (John 15:17)

Blog author: rnothstine
posted by on Thursday, February 16, 2012

I’ve tried to stay on top of the federal government’s response to natural disasters here at Acton. I’ve written a number of commentaries, blog posts, and a story in Religion & Liberty covering the issue. “Spiritual Labor and the Big Spill” specifically addressed the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. For extensive background on this short clip of Bobby Jindal at CPAC 2012, see my post “Bobby Jindal on Centralized Disaster Response.”

In the Spring 2011 issue of Religion & Liberty, I wrote about the Christian response to disaster relief, focusing on Hurricane Katrina and the April 2011 tornadoes that decimated communities in the deep South and Joplin, Mo. in May. Included in the story is a contrast of church relief with the federal government response. From the R&L piece:

In Shoal Creek, Ala., a frustrated Carl Brownfield called the federal response “all red tape.” The Birmingham News ran a story on May 10 reporting that a “low number” of Alabama residents had applied for federal assistance for various reasons including being “leery of government help.”

Why the leeriness to reach out for federal assistance? For one, just read this AP story about the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and their effort to collect debts or overpayment checks that were spent years ago by people trying to rebuild their lives after Hurricane Katrina. One can understand the skepticism to apply for federal assistance and it certainly highlights the mismanagement of taxpayer money at FEMA.

As a Katrina evacuee myself, I have written a lot about disaster response on the PowerBlog and elsewhere. Here is just one post that compares the private sector role to the federal disaster response.

Louisiana’s Governor Bobby Jindal received high praise for his handling of the BP disaster in the Gulf in 2010. Even political foes like Democratic strategist and Louisiana native James Carville called Jindal’s leadership in times of crisis as “competent,” “honest,” and “personable.” Jindal was a powerful image of leading by example and presence as cameras followed him around the Gulf, marshes, and bayous. The media spent days and nights on the water with a governor who declared the cleanup up was a war “to protect our way of life.”

In the summer of 2010, I published a commentary on the disaster in the Gulf titled “Spiritual Labor and the Big Spill.” Along with the vast connection the waters hold to the heritage and way of life of those on the Gulf Coast, I addressed some of the disillusionment of the elected leaders in the state with the federal response:

Many in Mississippi and Louisiana are also understandably weary of an often unresponsive federal bureaucracy. United States Congressman Gene Taylor (D-Miss), who represents the seacoast, said of the federal response, “I’m having Katrina flashbacks,” and called the current administration’s efforts “incompetent.” In a particularly harsh quip Florida Senator George Lemieux (R-Fla) added: “It’s not just oil that’s washing ashore Mr. President, it’s failure.” Asked about the biggest frustration with the federal response, Governor Bobby Jindal (R-La) on day 73 of the spill lamented, “There’s just no sense of urgency.”

In his 2010 book Leadership and Crisis, Jindal declared of the local initiative,

If the oil spill crisis teaches us one thing, it is that a distant, central command and control model simply didn’t work with the fast-moving and ever-changing crisis that was unfolding. Frankly, some of the best leadership and advice we got was from local leaders, like the parish presidents and fishermen. As far as I can tell, none of them has yet to win a Nobel Prize, but they know these waters. And some of the best ideas for cleanup came from locals.

Because the federal government was failing to provide the boom we needed, we came up with creative ideas – Tiger dams, Hesco Baskets, sand-drop operations, and freshwater diversions. It was local initiative that gave us one of the best techniques for cleaning up: vacuum trucks. The federal government was having workers clean up the marsh grasses with the equivelant of paper towels. We thought of the bright idea of putting a large vacuum truck, like the kind that they use to clean Port-a-Potties, on top of a National Guard pontoon boat. They were highly effective in sucking up the oil. (p. 12, 13).

Local initiative, local government, and especially church based charities and agencies are proving to be the best tools for assisting and leading in a crisis. For an overview of how Christian charities served during the 2011 tornado disasters in the South and in Joplin, Missouri, take a look at “The Church and Disaster Relief: Shelter from the Stormy Blast” in Religion & Liberty.

I have written quite a bit on the church response to natural disasters here at Acton. “The Church and Disaster Relief: Shelter from the Stormy Blast” was the feature piece in the last issue of Religion & Liberty.

John Tozzi over at businessweek.com has written an excellent article highlighting Louisiana’s outreach to the business community during natural disasters. From the article:

As Hurricane Gustav bore down on Louisiana in 2008, state officials wanted to avoid the food shortages that had followed Katrina three years earlier. So they bought thousands of MREs—“meals ready to eat,” foil-bagged military rations available from the Federal Emergency Management Agency—for about $8 each. They also called local caterers and restaurants to see whether those businesses might help feed evacuees. The food vendors, it turned out, were able to serve fresh, hot meals of jambalaya and red beans and rice at half the price of FEMA’s rations. “We probably saved close to half a million dollars during that one event by tapping into the private sector,” says Pat Santos, who oversees disaster relief in Louisiana.

Tozzi points out that FEMA has also stepped up their efforts to partner with businesses, realizing the private sector often provides greater resources and a better response time for disaster relief.

Acton’s Rev. Robert A. Sirico published an article in Religion and Liberty in the fall of 2010 on Haiti and how we could help it recover.  It has been several months since then, and eighteen months since a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti near Port-au-Prince, killing around 230,000 people.  Eighteen months is a long time and many, including myself, have pushed Haiti into the background of their minds.  However, Haiti is still desperately struggling to recover from this terrible disaster.

Excerpts from a letter written to the International Organization of Migration by a Haitian citizen show just how dire the situation is: “Since January 12th, things have only gotten worse and worse. We do not have work and we do not have money. There is no supervision. We are shown hope, but nothing has come to us except the hurricane season.”

Another letter written to the IOM by a Haitian citizen states: “What will be done for those of us living in tents? We are eating dust. We want to go home. How can you help? There are talks of a rebuilding process since IOM carried out a registration in the camp but nothing has happened. Must we wait for ever? We want to find work, because it is very painful to wait and be dependent on others for help. When we work, we suffer less. We believe that if IOM could give us work, things would be better for us and our families.”

The Haitian people are still struggling mightily to merely survive.  How did this happen?

It has not been from a lack of generosity.  According to the British charity Oxfam, “over $1 billion was quickly raised for the emergency response… [it was] ‘unprecedented generosity’ shown by the world for Haiti.”

In fact, the aid has helped in many ways:  “U.N. figures show around 4 million people received food assistance, emergency shelter materials were delivered to 1.5 million, safe water was distributed to more than a million, while a million more benefited from cash for work programs.  The U.N. World Food Program continues to help close to two million Haitians with school meals, nutrition and cash-and-food-for work programs.”

However, as the recovery has dragged on, Oxfam reports that “few damaged houses have been repaired and only 15 percent of the basic and temporary new housing required has yet been built.”  Also, much of the rubble from the earthquake has yet to be cleared, which has significantly slowed rebuilding and recovery efforts.

In terms of human health, the president of Doctors Without Borders International “blasted what he called the ‘failure of the humanitarian relief system’ to stem cholera epidemic deaths in Haiti.”

In addition, Oxfam reports “The World Bank says almost half of the $5.3 billion — about $2.6 billion — has been approved in donors’ budgets, while a separate Bank document said [only] $1.2 billion had been actually disbursed to date for program support.”  Only about 23 percent of the funds available for Haiti’s recovery have been dispersed, and this has certainly slowed rebuilding.

Oxfam has called the situation a “quagmire”.  The lack of progress is not surprising given the leadership vacuum in Haiti: “[the earthquake] has brought together a weakened and struggling Haitian government, an alphabet soup of U.N. agencies, other governments from around the world and an army of private charities that some estimate at more than 10,000.”

Although the relief effort started off well, the chaos of a situation with no clear leader has stifled a true recovery and left the Haitian people in despair unnecessarily.  If the Haitian government has been unwilling or unable to lead due to the magnitude of the disaster, then another organization or country needs to step up and help Haiti organize the charities and aid dispersal.  Waiting for “someone else” to take the lead has just caused more suffering.

Ted Constan, chief program officer of Boston-based Partners In Health, said, “We need to think about getting money down into the communities to produce jobs for people because that’s the only way people are going to get on their feet economically. We’d like to see more of a ‘pull’ policy being generated around getting people out of the camps – markets, jobs, healthcare, clean water, stable housing etc.” Helping Haitians get jobs and adequate housing is fundamental to the rebirth of the country.

In the words of Rev. Sirico: “Haiti needs practical help and generous charity right now — implemented intelligently, and with a keen eye for existing conditions. We need to support aid agencies that provide water and medicine.”  This is still as true today as it was in the fall of 2010.  As much as possible, we need to support organizations that can successfully accomplish this.

Finally, as Rev. Sirico has previously stated: “In the long run, we have to look at what Haiti needs to prevent such disasters and minimize their impact. What the country needs is economic development and a culture that can support such development.  What Haiti needs are the institutions that provide protection and cushioning in cases of emergency. Most of all, it needs to develop economically.”  Hopefully, this will happen soon, but, until then, we can keep Haiti in mind, pray for the people there, remember to support the charity efforts there, and have a desire to help the country progress and develop in the future.