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'You taught me a lesson'

Gil Furst is seeing disaster recovery from what he calls "the other side."

BY SUSAN KIM | WAYNESVILLE, N.C. | August 2, 2005


"There are some things I miss terribly."

—Gil Furst


Gil Furst is seeing disaster recovery from what he calls "the other side." Furst, who retired as director of Lutheran Disaster Response last year, is spending this week mucking out a basement in western North Carolina.

He’s with a 42-member volunteer team that made a two-day drive from Illinois to lend a hand in the mountains of North Carolina. Furst’s home church - Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Schaumburg, Ill. - was coordinated through the United Methodist Disaster Recovery Center in Clyde, N.C.

It's an intergenerational trip, explained Furst. The youngest volunteer on the team is 14, and the oldest is 78. And there’s plenty to do in western North Carolina, which was deluged in September by the remnants of two hurricanes.

Furst said he's gotten to know the homeowners as he works on their house. “They're childhood sweethearts,” he said. “But they're an older couple and they just got married a few years ago, and moved into her parent's house. Here we are in August - it's been almost a year - and some of that stuff we carried out of that basement was still wet.”

As he carried ruined belongings out of the damaged home, Furst reflected on what it means to see disasters from the other side.

His former job often involved spur-of-the-moment travel so he could coordinate both immediate response and long-term recovery from disasters all over the country. Going from the constant excitement into retirement has been a big change, he acknowledged.

"There are some things I miss terribly," he said. "I miss the people. But I feel good I was able to be involved in putting some things together in terms of disaster response that are still in place today."

Furst remembers when faith-based disaster response wasn’t ecumenical. "All the denominations had their kingdoms. But then we made a commitment that we were going to work together. And I believe that commitment is as strong now as it is when I left."

He also remembers the lessons that disaster survivors themselves taught him. "I used to wonder why disaster survivors lived where they did. I would wonder, for example, why anybody would live right by the Mississippi River when it repeatedly flooded."

Furst internalized a kind of answer on the ground immediately after California’s 1994 Northridge earthquake, a 6.7-magnitude temblor which killed more than 50 people and injured more than 9,000. "It was before I started my job with LDR, but I was already involved with regional response. I was standing near a lady’s house. The first wave of the quake split the concrete slab foundation in two. The second wave split it in half the opposite way. This woman was living in a FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) trailer in her front yard. Her house was just crumbled up in the middle of the lot.

"And I asked her - I was new to disaster response - why would anybody live on an earthquake fault? And she told me to look up, and she asked me what I saw. I told her I saw a clear blue sky. She told me to look in her back yard, and tell her what I saw. I told her I saw an orange tree full of oranges.

"Then she said, 'Well, I’ve been seeing on TV that there are blizzards on the east coast, and traffic is stopped and nobody has electricity. Why would you want to live on the east coast?'

Furst said he simply stopped and looked at the woman, then said to her: "You’ve taught me a very important lesson."

Furst said he believes he left the disaster response world when it was the right time to go - just before last year’s hurricane season began.

"I have seen too many people stay for too long in disaster response. If I had stayed on when last year's hurricanes hit, I would not have been able to leave."

And that means he wouldn't be in the mountains of North Carolina this week with his fellow church members. "This is cool," he said, with a grin that rivals that of his teenage team members.

"I’ve also been to California four times this year to see my granddaughter. She's two, and not a month has gone by that we haven't seen her. This is the longest stint right now - it's been two months. When she was born and I held her in my arms, I realized there were more important things than what I was doing."

Furst said he'll be back on a disaster site every year to volunteer as long as he's able.

"Because, I mean, I actually choose to go to places," he joked. "Planned travel? I mean, what's that? With electricity? Hot running water?"

Furst - who was famous for typing notes into his handheld Palm Pilot during meetings - said he still uses his Palm. "Sure, I still use it," he said, "only now I have video clips of my granddaughter. I have her voice speaking recorded on there. I just use it for different things now."


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