'I dropped everything else'

Ann Exline Starr stuck one toe in the sea of disaster response - and now she's swimming in it.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | October 10, 2005



"I was committed to finding a way to help."

—Ann Exline Starr


Ann Exline Starr stuck one toe in the sea of disaster response - and now she's swimming in it.

Like countless others in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, she had a fervent desire to help. "I was really interested in volunteering," said the Delaware lawyer and mother of three.

Exline Starr's story shows how a lay person's efforts - with a lot of networking and a little bit of luck - can spark a wider relief effort hundreds of miles away.

Her first phone call was to her pastor at the Presbyterian church she attends in Wilmington, Delaware. He told her to contact Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA). Through PDA, she heard about a responder in southern Louisiana - the Rev. Bill Crawford.

"I left Bill a message that I was offering assistance and would be interested in bringing a work team down," she said.

Two days later, Crawford returned the call - but Exline Starr told him she was at work. "I said, 'can I call you back?' And he told me this was the first time he'd managed to get a phone line working out of there. So I dropped everything else."

Crawford and Exline Starr talked about people's needs - and Exline Starr began working her connections in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. area. She has practiced law for 18-and-a-half years, mostly in the financial services arena. After an 8-month stint in Iraq as a consultant, Exline Starr came home searching for something to do where she could make a difference in people's lives.

"I found out that there was an organization - Diplomat Freight Service - interested in sending two cargo-loads and two planeloads of relief goods," said Starr. "Then everything came together. Bill said if I had the relief supplies, he would find a way to accept them."

Exline Starr dove into an effort that's not always recommended - much less successful - for disaster response novices: donating material goods immediately after a disaster. But she obeyed two important rules regarding material donations. First, she was sure of a specific need. Second, she had a ready recipient who wouldn't be overwhelmed with sorting and unloading the supplies.

"Obviously it was, to some extent, meant to be," mused Exline Starr. "There was a need. I was committed to finding a way to help."

From Rev. Crawford's perspective, the timing was optimal. As Exline Starr gathered the relief goods, Rev. Crawford was opening a distribution center in south Louisiana.

Crawford is pastor at the First Presbyterian Church in Thibodaux, 60 miles south of Baton Rouge. Involved in hurricane response for years, Crawford is also president of the local ministerial alliance.

The initial shipment from Exline Starr was one seed that helped Crawford's distribution center grow until it became the central distribution point in the area for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and for other relief groups and churches. Crawford, Exline Starr and others are also working with regional interfaith groups, such as the Terrebonne Readiness and Assistance Coalition.

Making the match happen the way it did took a lot of phone calls and a lot of networking, Exline Starr admitted. "I'm lucky enough to have a number of contacts - governmental, professional, volunteer, faith-based. The stage was set for a quick response. Diplomat Freight Service has been great - and the City of Baltimore has been absolutely fantastic." With Exline Starr's help, city officials in Baltimore continue to monitor needs and collect specific items.

Managing material donations is not easy, Crawford explained, because "it's a fluid situation every day."

Just when he and Exline Starr began to focus on expanding their reach with possible satellite centers into New Orleans, Hurricane Rita hit - and the needs soared in the parishes surrounding Thibodaux.

Crawford said he has tried to stay focused. "We're not a food pantry. We're not a refugee center," he said.

Many first responders still have a serious need for supplies, he said. "The police, the fire department, the forestry service. These folks are separated from their supply line. They're doing their work with little or no support."

Crawford and his team are also distributing food and water to the Grand Isle Indian Reservation. Relief goods are also going out to major shelters - some operated by FEMA, others operated by churches or charities - set up around the state, he said.

Crawford said he wished the Hurricane Rita survivors would get the same attention as those affected by Hurricane Katrina. "But a lot of people are not tuned into how bad Rita was for the southern parishes in Louisiana. We have 50,000 people displaced. It's not as large as Katrina. But you're talking every southern parish had portions underwater."

Nonetheless, Crawford has had volunteers streaming in from across the country. "We just had a team in from Tennessee. We had a couple who had worked at Ground Zero. We're a real motley crew. We're just cobbling together," said Crawford. "That's what makes us work. We're an organization based on happy chaos. We still stick to the vision: to warehouse materials that no one else can take."

Crawford said he believes the faith-based disaster response community is doing what it has always done: picking up the slack when nobody else can meet the need. "This thing is just too big for everybody," he said. "So we fill in gaps. We fill in those needs.

"It has really been a lesson in the sovereignty of God," he added. "I have really seen it. It's very apparent."


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