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'Volunteer Villages' created

With help from an overseas partner, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is breathing life into "Volunteer Villages" in Mississippi that will help storm-stricken communities over the long haul.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIM0RE | September 22, 2005


"I am proud of our efforts, small though they may be, when compared to the enormity of the recovery task ahead."

—Gary Payton


With help from an overseas partner, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is breathing life into "Volunteer Villages" in Mississippi that will help storm-stricken communities over the long haul.

With three Volunteer Villages already functioning and two more planned, each is unique, explained Gary Payton, a Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) Volunteer Village team chief who helped get the effort off the ground. The Volunteer Village concept he described is "a tent camp that can house volunteers who are coming in from all over the U.S. to provide relief services for people in greatest need."

Volunteers initially will be doing cleanup work such as cutting down trees, removing debris, mucking out houses, and putting tarps on roofs. "We'll continue to work with local officials to assist in needs assessment," said Payton. "We anticipate that the villages will be up for quite a period of time, how many months we don't know."

The first Volunteer Village was set up in Gautier on the property of a Presbyterian church, and can house about 100 people.

The second is in D'Iberville. Created on a city softball field at the invitation of the mayor, it can host about 130 people.

A third is in place at the Diamondhead Community Church, in southwestern Mississippi, which Payton described as a "Presbyterian church very active in assistance. They have been housing volunteers - sometimes more than 100 - and delivering a wide variety of services to people in the affected area since the storm hit."

At least two more Volunteer Villages are planned, one in the north Gulfport suburb of Orange Grove, and another in Bay St. Louis. Payton said PDA purposely created the model so it can be reproduced.

"I am proud of our efforts, small though they may be, when compared to the enormity of the recovery task ahead," said Payton. "The uniting bond we share is the simple desire to serve those so devastated by the wrath of Hurricane Katrina."

When developing the Volunteer Villages, PDA tapped the expertise of the emergency section of Norwegian Church Aid (NCA). Two NCA representatives stayed one week each in Mississippi, helping to design the first village, then standardizing and improving operations.

Anders Haaland of NCA said he felt like he gained as much as he contributed from his deployment to the United States. "We worked together to put in place the organizational framework necessary to ensure that the camps operated efficiently and safely - and that they help the right people, and help the volunteers have a meaningful stay. This included the details of how to schedule volunteer teams in and out efficiently - ensure that the skills necessary could be mobilized when required; ensure a professional needs assessment; and ensure adequate coordination with federal, state and local authorities and the Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster network."

Haaland said he was impressed with the work of the churches and volunteers during Katrina's aftermath. "I am very impressed with the number of and dedication of the volunteers I met. People would start arriving into the affected areas within days of the disaster, and immediately go to work helping other people. This is an enormous resource. I think most people around the world would help their neighbors. However, I think the spirit, dedication and sheer magnitude of this volunteer response is something you won't see outside the United States."

From his perspective, Haaland also said it appears the U.S. government response does need to be re-examined. "We have all seen the criticism in various media, and the 'blame-game' is being played out. I don't think anyone can have an informed opinion until after the operation has been properly examined some time in the future," he said. "What seems clear is that some people were left stranded along parts of the coast, and particularly in New Orleans. However, compared to the enormous damage, and what amounts to the total destruction of several communities along the coast, the number of casualties, although tragic, is in my opinion very low."

Contingency planning is difficult worldwide, he said, not just in the United States. "We also have to bear in mind that a society can only have contingency plans for scenarios up to some predetermined level. After all, we would all be safer if we lived in bunkers, but do we really want to?"

Compared to some disasters he has worked, Haaland also felt that security was not a huge concern, despite highly televised images of looting and violence. "Security is almost always a concern in places we work. Although we all read about the shooting in New Orleans, the overall picture was one of calm and order."

He also said communications were better compared to some other countries in post-disaster situations. "Communication is usually a problem. But along the Gulf the mobile networks were up and running after only a few days which really made it a lot easier. The resources available in terms of goods, services, logistics and volunteers were outstanding, easily accessible and not really a bottle neck. This is highly unusual," he said.


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