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'Vision is critical'


"It's all about helping people."

—Lynn Spencer, St. Croix VOAD

Dodging everything from flash floods, tornadoes, high winds, and freezing

temperatures that seemed to strike across the nation

Monday, disaster responders from voluntary organizations

gathered in Oklahoma City to talk about their vision for

the future.

The National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster

(NVOAD) conference convened March 17-20 in Oklahoma

City, a place that still bears the tragic emotional

scars of the 1995 bombing of the Murrah building in

which 168 were killed and hundreds were wounded.

Many NVOAD representatives will visit the memorial that

honors the spirits of those who died, said Linda Soos-

Davis of the Oklahoma Department of Emergency

Management. "Some people who are here haven't been back

to Oklahoma City since they responded" to the 1995

tragedy, she said.

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks are, as a matter of

course, the other pervasive disaster on everyone's

minds. Or, for some, the 25,000 people in Oklahoma who

have filed for assistance in the wake of this year after

a massive winter ice storm. Or, a tornado that struck a

small town in Wisconsin.

Whatever the disaster, "vision is critical" in

organizing a response, said Bev Abma, who heads the

Christian Reformed World Relief Committee as it

administers more than 500 volunteers that respond to

disasters every year.

Responders have to ask a question that seems

ridiculously simple but can be surprisingly difficult to

answer: "Did we help anybody?"

"Sometimes we get so focused on 'the doing' that we

forget why we're doing it. The vision is the critical

piece," she said.

And NVOAD representatives shared their vision of ways to

improve future response - whatever the disaster. They'd

like to involve affected families more in the overall

response process, develop better communications

strategies, educate the public about survivors' needs in

the wake of disasters, and begin case management within

the first 30 days after disaster strikes.

Amid these serious visions, Abma asks NVOAD responders

for the craziest idea they've talked about.

Dale Keltner of the Aid Association for

Lutherans/Lutheran Brotherhood has one that draws

laughter, then serious consideration: "We should have

one agency for long-term recovery, one agency that

everybody understands, that's what their job is, that's

what they're here for. We should have a national

umbrella organization responsible for long-term


Isn't that what NVOAD is? Not really, or not yet, the

responders agree. Right now NVOAD is a coalition of 34

national member organizations, 52 state and territorial

VOADs, and a growing number of local VOADs.

But NVOAD doesn't respond directly to survivors. Its

members do. And they're often involved in the part of

disaster response that's the least attention-getting --

long-term recovery.

Sometimes voluntary group leaders get tired of trying to

catch the limelight and keep public attention on long-

term needs. "We need to get Hollywood involved and have

the 'Who Wants to be a Millionaire' winners donate their

winnings to long-term recovery," piped up one responder.

"Yeah," said another, "But who wants to be a long-term


Others jokingly suggest building a geodesic dome over

their cities to prevent future disasters.

But Meg Woodcock of the American Red Cross said that, if

there can't be a single long-term response agency, then

perhaps there can be a single national message about the

long-term effects of disasters.

Voluntary agencies need to start informing the public -

on a national scale - about how their work meets people

needs. Woodcock is talking about a clear national

message. "President Bush did it for the war. Certainly

we can do it for disasters," she said. "We have to be

very up-front that this isn't going to be over in a


Abma stressed that a lot of the most effective

disaster response starts at the local level. "It boils

down to, after every disaster, you need to look into the

players, and say 'this is the disaster now. This is our

reality.' "

It's a matter of adopting a national vision and then

entrusting local leaders to carry it out, Abma added.

"CRWRC has more than 500 volunteers that go out every

year. I can't guarantee that everybody will have the

same vision of CRWRC that I do."

Abma facilitated a workshop in which VOAD

representatives split up into small groups to discuss

ideas. "When I asked for your ideas, you had to interact

and do a 'pull and tug' with each other," said Abma,

adding that the same group dynamics often take place

among local disaster responders.

"There are some groups where two people were tugging at

each other, and some groups where people took time to

say 'hey, we haven't heard from you yet.' Observing

those group dynamics should be part of your organizing.

It all depends on the situation in your community."

In any community, there are voluntary agencies of many

shapes and sizes, explained Abma. "Sometimes agencies do

their own thing but in the long haul, we should all work

together to do the best job with our resources."

Each agency doing its own thing without consulting

others usually works well only in small disasters, she


Lynn Spencer from the St. Croix VOAD summed it up,

simply: "It's all about helping people."

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