UMCOR / News Room / News & Features / Archives 2007 / 0621- Church Disaster Coordinators

Church Disaster Coordinators, Volunteers Form Covenant

A UMNS Report
By Linda Bloom

NEW YORK, June 20, 2007—When a tornado struck Eagle Pass, Texas, in April, Susan Hellums found herself thrust into her new role as disaster response coordinator for the United Methodist Southwest Texas Annual Conference.

But Hellums, who also coordinates the conference's Volunteers in Mission teams, knew exactly what to do.

She called Barbara Tripp, a consultant with the United Methodist Committee on Relief, who flew to Texas, made the five-hour drive from McAllen to Eagle Pass with her and then provided guidance at the disaster site, offering options on how to manage the relief work.

A few months earlier, both women had been part of what organizers called a "landmark" meeting of UMCOR and Mission Volunteers staff from the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, along with disaster response coordinators and Volunteers in Mission coordinators for the denomination's annual (regional) conferences and jurisdictional volunteer coordinators.

The Feb. 8-10 event in Fayetteville, Ark., served as an introduction to the "UMCOR and UMVIM Covenant in Disaster Response," which provides a basis for better coordination and collaboration between disaster responders and volunteer teams.

"To me, it all goes together," Hellums said. "It's God's work and God's mission."

Laying the Groundwork

The idea for such a covenant occurred as far back as 1999, according to the Rev. Tom Hazelwood, UMCOR's director of domestic disaster response, but the first informal attempt did not succeed. "With the hurricanes of 2004, it became very apparent to me that we needed to figure out a better way to work on the relationship (between disaster coordinators and volunteer teams)," he said.

Difficulties were only magnified by hurricanes Katrina and Rita the following year.

On a typical Volunteers in Mission trip, he explained, the specific task and needed materials are already arranged, along with shelter and meals. In a disaster like Katrina, where there is little or no infrastructure remaining, such arrangements are impossible. While some volunteer teams adapt to the situation, others do not, Hazelwood added.

The Rev. Clinton Rabb, who heads the Mission Volunteers program at the Board of Global Ministries, said Katrina and Rita sparked an increase in volunteers working both in the United States and around the world.

"We saw almost a tripling of the number of volunteers working in the field in total," he said. "The good news is that the volunteer system did not crumble under pressure. What it did expose was some need for clarification and definition of the role of volunteers in a disaster."

That clarification is particularly important, according to Rabb, because the denomination's role is to facilitate the work of Volunteers in Mission, which is basically a grassroots movement.

For years, UMCOR has provided training to help annual conferences deal with the emergency relief and long-term recovery aspects of a disaster. The point of the covenant is to include a coordinator for volunteers as part of the early response to a disaster.

In a disaster, a volunteer can range from a concerned individual who shows up after seeing the event on television to a well-trained emergency relief worker.

"Between those two extremes, there's a huge variation," Rabb explained. "What we're hoping to do is make it easier to give guidance to our UMVIM teams as they prepare to go into disaster areas."

Site managers in a disaster are the annual conference coordinators and any UMCOR staff sent in to assist, he noted. Volunteers serve under their direction.

Jurisdictional Support

Both Rabb and Hazelwood said support of the covenant from jurisdictional United Methodist Volunteers in Mission coordinators has been a key factor in the process.

As the covenant preamble states, "...we give thanks that God has raised up UMCOR and UMVIM to coordinate and strengthen the servant leadership of the church for U.S. disaster response and recognize the unique and complementary gifts and grace of these two programs. We affirm that by working collaboratively in the oneness of the Body of Christ they are much more effective and responsive than either can be separately."

Such collaboration already has a model in the North Carolina Annual Conference, where Tripp worked for a conference organization called MERCI for seven years. The organization has successfully combined disaster response and Volunteers in Mission work.

Tripp, who was on the planning committee for the February event, believes that once everyone understands their role, the covenant will be "a great partnership."

Her relationship with Hellums began last year when Tripp provided training in Southwest Texas for early response disaster teams.

Hellums, whose paid conference job is to coordinate border area missions, is grateful for UMCOR resources and impressed by its willingness to participate. "When I called for help, Barbara was there," she added.

The April 24 tornado killed seven people in Eagle Pass and three people in nearby Piedras Negras, Mexico, across the Rio Grande River. Hundreds of mobile homes and permanent homes were destroyed or damaged.

Trained early response teams from Southwest Texas and Oklahoma Indian conferences started clearing debris on May 2, the same day that President Bush declared Maverick County a federal disaster area. Since then, Hellums reported, a few more teams have gone in and an office was set up with a volunteer coordinator and volunteer construction coordinator. They soon will begin to receive teams to repair homes, she said.

"I think we are so blessed as United Methodists to have the capabilities that we have to be connectional and to have the leadership in the areas where we need it," Hellums added.

The collaboration on the Eagle Pass disaster "is what I hope we can model for all our disasters in the future," Hazelwood said. "I think it has wonderful potential. We can be even better and much more effective in our response."

Linda Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.