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Working Together as Partners: Lessons from Long Term Recovery

by Michelle R. Scott

Feb. 14,2006-- Long term hurricane response requires the whole community, reminiscent of Paul's words in 1 Cor. 3:9, "We work together as partners who belong to God." It is this kind of partnership during their long term recovery that equipped and enabled the Peninsula-Delaware Annual Conference to rebuild after Hurricane Isabel devastated their region in 2003.

Their advice to Hurricane Katrina survivors: keep the faith, the connectional system works, there's a solution for the most daunting challenge. Don't lose hope. UMCOR asked two disaster response officials from Peninsula-Delaware to reflect on their experiences in light of Hurricane Katrina. Here is their perspective.

Call for Help

Hurricane Isabel tore up the eastern seaboard from North Carolina to Maryland in September 2003, killing 35 people and causing untold damage from slashing winds and rains. Two years later, UMCOR is still following up on their efforts to ensure they have the support they need. This smaller, but devastating, hurricane wreaked havoc in coastal communities in four annual conferences. UMCOR's response to this hurricane is similar to how it responds to every disaster-including Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Of the four conferences struck by Isabel, Peninsula-Delaware was in a particularly difficult situation. The Rev. Dale Brown, Director of Disaster and Relief for the Peninsula-Delaware Annual Conference, had just stepped into this role when Hurricane Isabel rolled into town. He recalls that three days after the storm he realized that responding to this disaster was beyond his ability and contacted UMCOR for help.

Through UMCOR's training and consultation, Peninsula-Delaware established an effective-even award-winning-response on Maryland's Eastern Shore. In March 2005 the Peninsula-Delaware Annual Conference was awarded a "Special Humanitarian Award for Filling Unmet Needs" by the National Hurricane Conference for their comprehensive response to Hurricane Isabel.

Supporting the Conference

In those first days, UMCOR personnel toured the area with conference staff and met with people impacted by the storm. They worked with Rev. Brown and others to help the annual conference set up their own disaster response ministry. Rev. Brown notes that UMCOR's message was, "We're in this with you, but it's your recovery." The goal was for the conference to take ownership for recovery efforts with support from UMCOR's consultants and staff. Rev. Brown recalls UMCOR's track record of keeping its promises in regard to funding and support, "Every time they said they'd do something, they did it," said Rev. Brown.

Building Trust

The communities within Peninsula-Delaware that were most affected by the hurricane lived in small waterfront towns on Maryland's Eastern Shore. United Methodists were uniquely positioned to respond to people in these hard to reach areas because of their wide connections through churches and clergy.

By using UMCOR's model of training local people to be caseworkers the conference was able to help people who were isolated and may have been less trusting of an outside agency. "We suspect some of these people would have fallen through the cracks," said the Rev. J.P. Seymore, Peninsula-Delaware's Director of Connectional Ministries.

They might not have received the help they needed because they wouldn't have given their personal information to someone they did not know or submit it through a government form. He noted that caseworkers are important because they are dealing with sensitive information and people are more willing to trust someone with whom they have a relationship.

Challenges

As a Disaster Relief Committee member, Rev. Seymore was part of the group making policy decisions on the conference's response. "I was really impressed with the complexity of issues you can face," he comments. Rev. Seymore notes that repairs had to be handled carefully to ensure that they were in the scope of the homeowner's insurance policy and not cause issues with their claims. Also, homes had to be inspected by a structural engineer before repairs could be made because some damage cannot be detected by the untrained eye.

This is one of the many challenges facing the current recovery in the Gulf. Hundreds of thousands of homes are awaiting this inspection before repairs can begin because it would be a waste of time and resources to repair a home that will ultimately be condemned for deep structural problems.

From a national perspective, Hurricane Isabel was a challenge for UMCOR, too. Four Annual Conferences were affected by the storm and funding for hurricane response was slim. UMCOR deployed staff and consultants to help each conference set up their own response and strategically funded recovery efforts in each area to ensure the most effective efforts were put in place.

Connections Work

"I came away with a much greater faith on how our United Methodist Church connection worked," said Rev. Seymore. He saw UMCOR, annual conferences, churches, and individuals, "working together in a marvelous way to get the job done." UMCOR provided support, guidance, and funding at the national level. Local churches responded to help others. Some churches became warehouses for distributing relief supplies and others offered their unused parsonages to house pastors who had lost their homes. The conference itself became a place to organize efforts and funding.

"Because we felt the partnership in a way that felt real, we ended up with a conference that is not only thankful for how it was responded to, but is now more giving," Rev. Brown reflects. He notes the increase in the conference's monetary and material response to other disasters in the US and around the world since receiving help following Isabel. Disaster Response is now a "ministry owned by our Annual Conference," Rev. Brown concludes.