Louisiana Conference Proves Disaster Response Capacity
Susan J. Meister*
February 19, 2009—After the monster hurricane season of 2005, the exceptional generosity of United Methodists established a network of UMCOR partners across the US Gulf Coast to assist survivors of Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma. Since then, nearly $47 million in grants from the Hurricanes 2005 UMCOR Advance have been committed to Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama-West Florida, and Florida Annual Conferences to respond to immediate and long-term needs, and to build capacity for continuing disaster response.
In August 2008, at the three-year mark, UMCOR published a donor report, "Sustaining Survivors Long-Term Recovery," detailing the grant amounts and the work that had been accomplished. Following careful guidelines from UMCOR to guarantee good stewardship, each conference has submitted quarterly reports of the number of cases opened and closed, the number of volunteers hosted, house rebuilds, repairs completed, and more. In most areas, UMCOR partners are among the few groups still present in the multi-year rebuilding effort.
In Louisiana and Texas, the conference disaster recovery ministries were continuing best practices in both case management and construction when Hurricanes Gustav and Ike made landfall, virtually three years to the day after Katrina and Rita. The organization and experience of their ministries were key factors in managing immediate response and planning for a new long-term effort.
Numbers Document Tangible Results and More
A recent report from the Louisiana Conference disaster response ministry documents the numbers: 25,039 households served in rebuilding, case management and initial relief; 762 houses rebuilt; 4,767 houses repaired, and about 750 to 1,000 volunteers were hosted per month.
"In disaster response work, we talk a lot about 'capacity building,'" said the Rev. Tom Hazelwood, UMCOR executive. "We've experienced it first hand in Louisiana and other conferences. Not only have we documented the tangible results of three plus years of hard work, we have also witnessed profound intangible benefits of well-established and committed ministries standing ready and able to respond."
Effective Response to Emergency Needs
The Rev. Amy Mercer, deputy director of LCUMCDR (Louisiana Conference of the UMC Disaster Response, Inc.), explained that the conference is a key player in the Louisiana VOAD (Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster) and the state EOC (Emergency Operations Center). "We were on top of the unfolding events surrounding Gustav and Ike and aware of immediate needs," she said. "We were able to stage supplies and intelligently evacuate our stations in advance of the storm." After Gustav made landfall on September 1, LCUMCDR shipped 211,000 pounds of ice and 139 pallets of water to various locations.
Ms. Yvonne Dayries, volunteer manager for LCUMCDR, typically schedules volunteer teams for long-term repair and rebuilding efforts. After the two new storms, she recruited Early Response Teams for debris removal and cleanup. She affirmed that the strong network among Jurisdictional and Conference Volunteer in Mission coordinators helped with the quick response.
Building Relationships and Facilities for the Long Haul
Recently, as Ms. Dayries paged through team submissions for rebuilding and repair work throughout the conference, all but one were repeat teams. "They just want to be of service," she said. While volunteer visits peaked in 2007, the ministry is still filled to capacity, including this coming March, where over 1,100 are scheduled to participate.
The Gulf Coast has been a popular destination for many youth and college groups, and their involvement has spurred life-changing results. In 2007, Kate Currie traveled to Slidell as part of a church team. After graduating from the University of Tennessee, she spent the next year assisting the southeast station before beginning medical school. "The mission turned out to be a spiritually powerful week," she told Betty Backstrom, communications director for La. Conference. "This experiences changes lives...it did mine."
Funding from UMCOR grants, the Louisiana Conference and private donations have also improved and built new volunteer housing. In New Orleans, UMCOR funds helped upgrade and repair North Rampart Community Center and Peoples Community Center. New volunteer housing was built at Dulac Community Center and Aldersgate UMC, Slidell.
Ms. Jo Anne Findley, director of North Rampart (one of 103 community and institutional ministries receiving ongoing support from the Women's Division), noted that the UMCOR and conference funds that helped repair and rebuild the center, provided much-needed repairs for the community ministry. "Katrina gave us 'pain with a purpose,'" she said.
Dulac Community Center, also a community and institutional ministry, has been hosting volunteer teams for community work for years before the recent hurricanes. The new volunteer housing will not only support disaster response work, but the ongoing outreach to the community.
The Rev. Marie Williams, pastor of Aldersgate, notes that the new Epworth Center provides a wonderful facility for current volunteers, and stands ready for the future. "We will be ready to gear right back up for volunteers if ever needed again," she said.
Providing Opportunities for Ministry
Over the past three and a half years, disaster recovery ministry case managers, construction supervisors, and administrative staff in Louisiana have truly been the church for homeowners struggling to rebuild their homes and their lives after the devastating wind and water damage.
"This is a ministry, not a job, for me," explained Mr. Darryl Guy, construction supervisor in Dulac. "If it was just a job, I'd quit."
"Our people are not 'regular' employees," smiled Rev. Mercer. "They believe that God has been forming them for this ministry at this time."
"We have done a beautiful job of caring for God's people in their time of need," wrote Louisiana Bishop Bill Hutchinson in the April 25, 2008 edition of Louisiana Now! "May we all give thanks for the United Methodist people across the world that have made this possible through their selfless gifts, and to those who are working in Disaster Recovery who are the faces of God's angels knocking on our doors and offering help."
Ms. Kellie Kinsland, grant writer, has been a key addition to the LAUMCDR staff. "She has been able to write grants for positions and funds for unmet needs," explained the Rev. Darryl Tate, Executive Director. "To date she has received over $4 million to help rebuild homes and lives."
Ms. Kinsland noted that a primary funding group has been the Louisiana Family Recovery Corps (LFRC). Recently the LFRC released funds to assist in Terrebonne and Lafourche Parishes and New Orleans proper. Other funding agencies include the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the Salvation Army, the American Red Cross, United Way, Rotary Clubs, and more.
Ms. Dayries tracks carefully the number of hours of volunteer service, many from a variety of other denominations and secular groups, since the in-kind donation (over $50 million) helps the state offset taxes.
Flexibility to Meet Changing Demands
The Louisiana disaster recovery ministry has reconfigured itself several times over the course of the response to meet current rebuilding needs. In 2008, the ministry organized two main stations - southeast for the greater New Orleans area and southwest for Cameron Parish, Abbeville and Dulac. Recently, the southeast station, under the leadership of station manager Mr. Dale Kimball, assumed responsibility for the Dulac, Houma and Thibodaux response. The southwest station is moving to complete cases in the Abbeville area, and will refocus west on Cameron Parish, so hard-hit by the surge from Hurricane Ike.
The Rev. Darryl Tate also reports that a new "River Parish" response has been organized for the parishes west of the Mississippi River, south of Baton Rouge.
Changing Lives and Poised for The Future
"The storms changed the landscape in Louisiana," Rev. Mercer affirmed, "but the dollars that people gave to us via UMCOR are changing lives. It's been an honor to work on this effort and to witness the single biggest volunteer effort ever."
"We've become known as an organization who welcomes all faith-based and civic organizations that want to assist in the recovery process," added Mr. Kimball. "This is very evident by the large of numbers of volunteers we continue to host and the variations of grants and donations we receive from across denomination lines. Our relationships and understanding of our faith based partners has been greatly strengthened."
"Our heartfelt thanks go out to every person who has given time, financial gifts and prayer support to help Louisiana recover from the hurricanes," Rev. Tate continued. "Without your help, Louisiana and the Gulf Coast would not be making the progress achieved so far. God bless you and all our wonderful staff working across our conference."
You can help the multi-year rebuilding effort continue by making a donation to Hurricanes 2008, UMCOR Advance #3019695. Volunteers are still welcomed in Louisiana and across the Gulf Coast. Go to the Louisiana Storm Recovery web site for more information.
*Meister is a Freelance United Methodist Journalist