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Human Stories Guide UMCOR’s Hazelwood

A UMNS Report

By Linda Bloom

February 18, 2009 —When a hurricane is predicted, the Rev. Tom Hazelwood consults weather forecasts and scientific projects to chart its likely path.

If a river threatens to overflow, he checks to see if enough flood buckets are stockpiled at the Sager Brown Depot in Baldwin, La., or various regional warehouses.

After a tornado strikes, he connects with the local disaster response coordinator to assess what type of assistance may be needed.

For more than a decade, Hazelwood, 50, has led the domestic disaster relief response for the United Methodist Committee on Relief. The work of Hazelwood and other UMCOR staff is supported each year by the "One Great Hour of Sharing" offering. This year's offering, which underwrites the agency's "costs of doing business," will be collected in local churches on March 22.

"He is a true brother in Christ," declares the Rev. Darryl Tate, who works in disaster relief at the conference level, about Hazelwood. "None of us are ever afraid to pick up the phone and call him."

Tate has experienced both sides of a disaster. As pastor of St. Luke's United Methodist Church in New Orleans, he was displaced when the church was flooded during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But he has gone on to coordinate the response to Katrina, Rita and subsequent storms as the executive director of the United Methodist Louisiana Annual Conference's Storm Recovery Center.

"I've learned that Tom is very committed to what he does," he says. "He has compassion for the victims."

'Stories of people's lives'

Assisting those suffering from a disaster is what makes his job compelling, according to Hazelwood. While the scenes of disasters are often similar enough to be interchangeable, he says, "the things that never fail to touch me are the human stories, the stories of people's lives and how they are touched by the disaster. Each story is different, and each one is powerful in its own way."

It is a path that Hazelwood never intended to take. With roots in rural Arkansas, he grew up in the small town of Carlisle and worked part-time in the rice and soybean fields as a youngster. "By the time I was a teenager, I was driving tractors," he recalls.

He enrolled at Henderson State University with a track scholarship and a desire to work with youth. "I intended to be a coach and teach school," he says.

After receiving his bachelor's degree, Hazelwood stayed on as a graduate assistant and planned to earn a master's degree in education. One day, a man he remembers as "Brother Bob" at the Wesley Foundation called him in and said a pastor in South Arkansas was looking for a youth minister. Brother Bob told him the position would pay more than a coaching job and told Hazelwood that if he didn't like it, he could return to the school in a year.

"I kept telling him no," he says, but he finally changed his mind. "I took the job and I actually loved it." He ended up staying four years in Eldorado, Ark., and participation in the church's youth program grew from 25 to 120.

Eventually, Hazelwood decided to seek ordination, but with a wife and a baby needed some means of support. The solution was to serve a two-point charge in Eastern Arkansas while attending Memphis Theological Seminary.

His introduction to disaster response work in 1996 was almost by happenstance, while serving as a pastor in Fort Smith, Ark., he was told his name had been submitted as the district disaster response coordinator. But he found himself deeply frustrated at the lack of information available when he attended his first conference-level disaster response meeting.

Trial by fire

The result was a trial by fire a month later when a tornado struck Fort Smith and Van Buren, causing the death of two children in Fort Smith, numerous injuries and substantial damage to 1,800 homes in the two towns. Other church leaders were away, attending the denomination's General Conference in Denver. "I figured out what it was we had to do and ended up putting together the long-term recovery," he says.

In 1997, after 15 tornados killed 25 people in one of the worst tornado outbreaks in Arkansas history, Bishop Janice Riggle Huie called Hazelwood, then disaster coordinator for the North Arkansas Conference. "I asked Tom to help us coordinate the disaster response efforts for the whole state of Arkansas," she remembers. " I learned from Tom Hazelwood how to work disaster recovery."

In the midst of that recovery, another call came - from UMCOR. Virginia Miller was retiring as head of domestic disaster response and asked him to apply for the job. He started in February 1998.

The Rev. Lloyd Rollins worked with Hazelwood at UMCOR for those first two years before leaving the agency in 1999. "In many respects, Tom is still a pastor," he explains. "He has the heart of a pastor. He always had a great compassion for the people who have been impacted by a disaster."

He believes Hazelwood's pastoral experience gave him an important insight into caring for those impacted by disasters. "I grew to depend on that and trust it," Rollins says. Currently serving with International Relief and Development, Rollins still keeps in touch occasionally with Hazelwood.

The scope of disasters and how the church responds to them have changed during the past decade, according to Hazelwood, who maintains an office at the United Methodist Building in Washington and lives in Virginia with his wife, Stephanie. They have two sons, Robert, 24, and John, 22.

"From the church level, we have a much higher level of preparedness now than we did 10 years ago," he says.

More Training, Volunteers

Changes in the denomination's law book, the Book of Discipline, have made conference disaster coordinators a requirement rather than optional, leading to more training, even down to the local church level. In addition, he noted, "we have many more volunteers involved now than we did."

Hazelwood approaches his job with a "ministry heart," according to Huie. "One of Tom's best gifts is working with volunteers," she says. "He understands volunteers, he relates to volunteers and he knows how to use volunteers very well."

Other factors -- such as the influx of people living along U.S. coastlines and the immediate media coverage of disasters -- have had an impact on disaster response.

Category 5 hurricanes like Hugo, which left a path of destruction from the Caribbean to the Carolinas in 1989, and the even deadlier Andrew, which devastated South Florida in 1992, forced the federal government to reconfigure the Federal Emergency Management Administration, according to Hazelwood.

"James Lee Witt really brought FEMA into its prime," he explains. "He, too, was one who preached preparedness."

During the Clinton administration, UMCOR had a connection at FEMA through Lacy Suiter, a United Methodist from Tennessee, whose presence there, Hazelwood said, gave faith-based agencies "a level of clout at FEMA."

Suiter, who died in 2006, was appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1996 to serve as FEMA's executive associate director for response and recovery and continued at the agency until his retirement in late 2001.

"With 9/11 and the creation of Homeland Security, I think everything went into confusion," Hazelwood says. The Bush administration used political appointees "who had no clue what emergency management was," he adds.

Although UMCOR has not had the same access to FEMA officials in recent years, the agency did receive a $66 million grant to administer for Hurricane Katrina relief work, probably, he says, "based on the relationship we had built with many of the FEMA people on the ground."

Difficulties of Katrina

Not surprisingly, Katrina is the most difficult disaster Hazelwood has encountered during his decade at UMCOR because of its size and "because expectations were so high." Although UMCOR has had smooth relations with the annual conferences during the Katrina recovery, he notes that others had disappointments. "Many volunteers had not volunteered in a disaster of that scope," he explains. "They were trying to make demands on the conferences and UMCOR that we couldn't meet."

H azelwood still meets in person with the Gulf Coast conference disaster coordinators about once a quarter, according to Tate, where they share information about problems and decisions. "He helps us discern what we need to do," he says.

In Tate's view, Hazelwood helps the church make decisions for all the right reasons: to help the least, the last and the lost. "He has really become more like a brother than my own brother," he adds. "He is the kind of person who will listen to you and consult with you."

Despite his years of experience, Hazelwood doesn't presume to know what is best for a conference or community. "All disasters are local," he says. "It's got to begin there and end there."

Hazelwood also believes in cooperating with other organizations to respond to disasters. Last May, he completed a two-year term as president of National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, which includes religious, nonprofit and governmental groups. "Everything we do is about relationships," he points out. "If you don't have good relationships, nothing works well."

Gifts to One Great Hour of Sharing can be made any time of the year through local United Methodist churches or by giving online. Online Giving

Worship resources for One Great Hour of Sharing Sunday are available at http://new.gbgm-umc.org/umcor/give/oghs/.

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