Posts tagged with: tornadoes

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.

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)

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.

Blog author: rnothstine
Friday, August 26, 2011

The August issue of Southern Living magazine offers a very good story on the faith of Smithville Baptist pastor Wes White and the community of Smithville, Miss. Smithville was devastated by a tornado that wreaked havoc across the South in late April.

Pastor White is quoted in the article as saying, “We have a hope beyond logic, beyond understanding. I believe our God is going to take our devastation and turn it into something beautiful.” The words from White echo Rev. Kelvin Croom’s message expressed in my article “The Church and Disaster Relief: Shelter from the Stormy Blast” from the Spring Issue of Religion & Liberty. Croom declared:

Even in the days we were living with segregation, we all had a hope for a better day. And right now, that’s what we’re doing in Tuscaloosa: We’re hoping for a better day, hoping we come from the ashes of destruction and into a beautiful, more livable American city.

The devastation is a reminder to pray for our fellow citizens who are in the path of Hurricane Irene, and pray that the hurricane has a dull bite. But as my piece in Religion & Liberty points out, if there is to be any destruction along the East Coast, it will largely be the Church and religious organizations that are the first on the scene. They are the ones who will be making a lasting impact in the recovery and restoration of affected communities.

While insensitive political commentators might be looking at the storm as a great opportunity for job creation, most of the effort will come from volunteers. An August 19 story from CNN on the Joplin tornado points out, what many of us already know, the faith community stays in the recovery effort for the duration. Anybody from the Gulf Coast or anybody who has been involved in Hurricane Katrina relief, is aware of the deep commitment and staying power of many charitable faith groups.

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?”