Books Close, but Recovery Continues on US Gulf Coast
By Linda Unger*
March 19, 2010—After nearly five years of intense relief and recovery work in Louisiana, Mississippi and other states affected by the hurricanes that devastated the US Gulf Coast, the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) has released its final disbursement of funds for the recovery effort.
“Our work in Louisiana and Mississippi, like our work in Haiti [following the January 12 earthquake] is based on our methodology of being there for the long haul,” said UMCOR Assistant General Secretary Rev. Tom Hazelwood, as he affirmed that UMCOR would continue to be involved in the region.
“I am very proud of the fact that here we are in March 2010 and UMCOR is just now making this final disbursement,” the last of nearly five years of quarterly payments, he said. “Most national organizations did so two years ago.”
Since the summer of 2005, when Hurricane Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast on August 23, and Hurricane Rita struck it again one month later, UMCOR has been working with annual conferences and grassroots organizations in those states directly affected by the disaster: Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Texas and Florida.
UMCOR also has supported survivors who in the wake of the hurricanes fled to other states. In all, more than 1.3 million people left hurricane-soaked hometowns where some 300,000 homes had been wiped out, and scattered to all fifty states in the union, including Alaska and Hawaii.
Volunteers and Benefactors Aid Recovery
United Methodists and people of goodwill across the country donated more than $64.5 million dollars to UMCOR’s recovery effort on the Gulf Coast. Funds went to cleanup, reconstruction, family-by-family problem solving, and direct assistance to support the survivors.
Although UMCOR has made this final disbursement, the funds will continue to support recovery work in Louisiana, where UMCOR so far has helped the annual conference repair or rebuild more than 9,100 homes, and in Mississippi, where it has helped the annual conference repair some 12,320 homes, more than 100 of them from scratch.
In Texas, where Hurricane Rita was strongest, UMCOR helped the conference repair or rebuild another 721 homes. More than 8,300 volunteers carried out this work, donating some 268,108 hours, valued at nearly $5.5 million.
“Because of our connectional system, United Methodists are uniquely positioned throughout the country and the world to meet the needs of survivors, including how we rally volunteers,” said Catherine Earl, UMCOR executive secretary for US Disaster Response.
In Louisiana nearly 72,000 volunteers have so far logged 3 million hours of donated time, energy and effort, and 160,000 (and counting) volunteers have participated in recovery efforts in Mississippi.
In the Alabama – West Florida (AWF) Conference, which was hit by hurricanes Ivan in 2004 and Dennis and Katrina in 2005, more than 5,500 volunteers repaired, rebuilt or removed debris from nearly 2,000 homes.
“It was heartening to see the efforts of so many people from all over the country, who could just as easily have stayed home,” said AWF Disaster Recovery Executive Director Rev. Clyde Pressley. “I have had a rebirth in my heart over the value of the connectional church.”
Disaster Case Management
UMCOR became a conduit for overseas donations when it was tapped by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to administer another $66 million in contributions from foreign governments in a project called Katrina Aid Today (KAT).
The objective of KAT was to prepare and support the management of individual cases of hurricane survivors. “UMCOR was the administrator of the project and the lead in a consortium with nine other organizations,” Earl explained. “We did capacity-building, training, administration of funds, and fostered collaboration among the participant organizations.”
Over the course of 24 months, KAT followed 72,770 cases, representing 193,568 individual survivors who were either living in their homes or relocated to other communities across the United States.
The KAT work produced another, long-lasting benefit, Earl said. “It has led to increased standardization of disaster case management on a national level. UMCOR played a tremendous role in that,” she explained. “After Katrina/Rita, the UMCOR methodology has become a model for many programs of disaster case management going forward.”
Although the final disbursement of funds has been made to the once ravaged Gulf Coast, UMCOR’s work is not yet done. “We’ll continue to be involved for up to two more years,” Hazelwood said.
UMCOR’s Long-term Commitment
“It’s an opportune moment,” he added, “when we’re in the beginning stages of relief and recovery in Haiti, to mark this final disbursement of funds for our Katrina/Rita effort five years after the hurricanes. It really reflects how UMCOR’s ministry unfolds among the people over a period of years.”
“It is a challenge to organize for so much need and so much well-meaning response,” whether in Haiti or the US South, said Earl. “John Wesley said first, do no harm. It is very easy in an emergency situation to rush in and do unintended harm. So, our response always has to be organized, coordinated and well communicated.”
Earl is quick to note that none of UMCOR’s work on the Gulf Coast or in response to today’s emergencies in Haiti and Chile could be realized without those who respond to another Wesleyan exhortation: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”
* Linda Unger is the staff writer for UMCOR