Posts tagged with: disaster relief

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.

Blog author: rnothstine
Wednesday, September 21, 2011

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 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.

I wrote a piece on the Church’s response to disaster relief in the Spring issue of Religion & Liberty. The article for R&L is in part an extension of my commentary “Out of the Whirlwind: God’s Love and Christian Charity” after a tornado hit Joplin, Mo. in May.

Being a Katrina evacuee myself, I returned to the Mississippi Gulf Coast for a time after seminary and the devastation of so many things I was familiar with and had known was simply surreal. I even went along for some in home visits and I can tell you that listening to people and empathizing with their plight is just as important as any material and financial assistance. Perhaps more so, because when the shock wears away a malaise can set in if people believe that their circumstances will not change even if the financial help is there. This is how some Katrina survivors fell into a long term cycle of dependency because they saw no hope for a brighter day.

The wake of devastation tends to push many churches and volunteers towards an even more authentic ministry. The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) video below says it all: “Speak from your heart. People don’t need platitudes or everything is going to be alright. They need honesty.”

Methodism’s founder was John Wesley and the denomination exploded out of the 18th century English revival and primarily in this country through circut riders who went anywhere and everywhere where souls were present. After his evangelical conversion in 1738, Wesley was banned from preaching in many English churches and many of the country’s religious leaders tried to stop him from preaching outside as well, charging him with trespassing on their parishes. His famous retort: “I look upon the whole world as my parish.” It is said that John Wesley traveled over 250,000 miles in his life to preach the gospel. Most of that was on horseback. The circumference of the earth at the equator is 24,901 miles.

Methodism’s credibility shined because it was a church that rolled up its sleeves and reached out to the middle and lower classes. The marginalized and ‘least of these’ were reminded that their worth was infinite in Christ. George Whitefield, another 18th century Methodist revivalist, recorded just one illustration in his journal as an example when he preached to the rough and materially poor miners in Kingswood, England. Whitefield wrote in his journal : “Miners, just up from the mines, listened and the tears flowed making white gutters down their coal-black faces.” One coal miner told Whitefield, “We never knew anybody loved us.”

One thing I tried to highlight a little in my piece is that even now church agencies and ministries are still involved in the rebuilding and restoration after Hurricane Katrina. Next month will be the sixth anniversary of the hurricane. Long after cameras and the media sensation rolled in and out work is being done to transform lives and hearts. The Mennonite Disaster Service has been especially faithful when it comes to meeting the long term needs of disaster victims. They are living out these words by David Livingstone, the 19th century Scottish missionary to Africa, who asked, “If a commission by an earthly king is considered a honor, how can a commission by a Heavenly King be considered a sacrifice?”

Wayne Grudem

Religion & Liberty’s spring issue featuring an interview with evangelical scholar Wayne Grudem is now available online. Grudem’s new book is Politics According to the Bible (Zondervan 2010). It’s a great reference and I have already made use of it for a couple commentaries and PowerBlog posts here at Acton. “I am arguing in the book that it is a spiritually good thing and it is pleasing to God when Christians can influence government for good,” Grudem declared in the interview.

“The Church and Disaster Relief: Shelter from the Stormy Blast”
is a piece I wrote for this issue focusing on the faith community’s response to the tornadoes in the South, Joplin, Mo, and Hurricane Katrina. Pastor Randy Gariss of Joplin and Jeff Bell of Tuscaloosa, Ala. were extremely generous with their time and helped to shape this article. Below is an excerpt from the article on Pastor Gariss’s thoughts on the response:

‘The churches are far better about getting out of their buildings now,’ said Randy Gariss, pastor of College Heights Church in Joplin. ‘Before it was more of a bunker mentality with some churches because of the cultural wars, but so many more churches are building relationships with the whole community.’

David Paul Deavel offers an excellent review of Daniel J. Mahoney’s, The Conservative Foundations of the Liberal Order in the issue. The title of his review is “Saving Liberalism from Itself” and in the review he declares:

Under modernity, Mahoney argues, liberty is too often reduced to ‘a vague and empty affirmation of equality and individual and collective autonomy’ that ‘is inevitably destructive of those ‘contents of life’—religion, patriotism, philosophical reflection, family ties or bonds, prudent statesmanship—that enrich human existence and give meaning and purpose to human freedom.’

“Debt, Finance, and Catholics” is a piece authored by Sam Gregg. Rev. Robert Sirico offers “The Church’s Social Teaching is One Consistent Body of Thought.”

The “In The Liberal Tradition” figure is Richard John Neuhaus. I met Neuhaus on Capital Hill when I was working at the Institute on Religion & Democracy. He was very close to a philosophy professor of mine at seminary and Neuhaus was very familiar with Asbury Theological Seminary, where I was a student at the time. I specifically remembered he knew a lot about John Wesley and the 18th Century evangelical revival in England.

Nuehaus had a real pastoral heart to go along with his sharp mind and he seemed to have an encouraging word for everybody. “Wealth and Whimsy: On Economic Creativity” is an excellent essay from 1990 by Richard John Neuhaus that is certainly worth the read. There is more content in this issue so please check it out and if you ever wish to share any ideas or provide feedback on Religion & Liberty feel free to offer that in the comment section below.

Update: Thanks to Adam Forrest for linking the Grudem interview on the Zondervan blog.

Here is the dramatic front page of The Birmingham News this morning with the headline “Day of Devastation.” It is imperative to highlight just some of the Christian responses to the tornadoes USA Today is reporting has now killed over 240 people. Just one example of the amazing response in Alabama: A facebook page titled “Toomer’s for Tuscaloosa” already has over 36,000 followers. The page is a network of Auburn fans who have put their sports civil war on hold to respond to the hardest hit Southern city, Tuscaloosa. The University of Alabama is in Tuscaloosa. The page already has a photo posted of Auburn students raising money and collecting donations for the community of their arch-nemesis.

Christian ministries are instrumental for disaster relief because they are first on the scene and when they respond from outside the community they remain committed. Social networking sites are proving to be invaluable. Last night, I saw a friend from seminary in Tupelo, Mississippi organizing an impromptu effort to bring drinks to people in overcrowded emergency rooms caused by the storm.

Stories of groups like The Salvation Army, Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, and the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) literally cutting through massive amounts of debris so they could set up hot food tents the day after Katrina was common in Mississippi. See my post titled “Faith-Based Charities Understand Long Term Need” concerning the Katrina disaster. My own church here in Grand Rapids, just got back from a mission trip from my hometown of Gulfport, Mississippi. Christian churches from all over the country are still heavily involved in contributing to Katrina recovery efforts. This will be the case with the response to the tornadoes as well.

Here is just a small sampling of some of the Christian ministries already committed to responding to the devastation caused by the tornadoes:

Waking up to the devastation today in Japan was heartbreaking. Malcolm Foster, reporting for the AP, notes:

A ferocious tsunami unleashed by Japan’s biggest recorded earthquake slammed into its eastern coast Friday, killing hundreds of people as it carried away ships, cars and homes, and triggered widespread fires that burned out of control.

Reporting for Reuters, Patricia Zengerle and David Morgan’s headline reads: “U.S. readies relief for quake-hit ally Japan.” From their article:

The Defense Department was preparing American forces in the Pacific Ocean to provide relief after the quake, which generated a tsunami that headed across the Pacific past Hawaii and toward the west coast of the U.S. mainland.

The U.S. Air Force transported “some really important coolant” to a Japanese nuclear plant affected by the quake, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said.

Foster says in his AP article:

President Barack Obama pledged U.S. assistance following what he called a potentially “catastrophic” disaster. He said one U.S. aircraft carrier is already in Japan, and a second is on its way. A U.S. ship was also heading to the Marianas Islands to assist as needed, he added.

Just this Wednesday, I asked “Does Shane Claiborne Care about Military Humanitarian Aid?” While he hasn’t answered, and I expect he won’t, it is important to note that this response would not be possible under Claiborne’s fantasy. In his military, the department of defense has to hold bake sales just to buy uniforms.

Please keep all the victims and their families in Japan in your prayers this weekend.