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Rural needs vary after disaster

"I need some help." The man's words on the phone were simple but they were anything but small talk.

BY SUSAN KIM | PRINCETON, N.J. | March 29, 2004

"The best thing about the '93 flood was that it finally got Grandpa to shut up about the flood of '51."

—Rev. Bryan Crousore

"I need some help." The man's words on the phone were simple but they were anything but small talk.

"You could just tell it was probably one of the hardest phone calls he'd ever made in his life," said the Rev. Bryan Crousore, administrator of the Missouri Interfaith Disaster Response Organization.

"He was the only person in his county that had tornado damage."

Describing the unique needs of Missouri's rural communities in the wake of disaster, Crousore said often it comes down to finding a common story.

After finding out the man lived near a town where Crousore used to be a pastor, the common ground started to rise. I said to him, 'well, do you know Homer Rogers?' Well, yeah, he knew Homer and we talked about his girls and Homer's girls and how they used to play together.

"And so we had a conversation. We have to begin with common stories."

When responding to disasters in rural communities, it's important to take into account that farmers and people in rural areas have long memories.

With the wry disaster humor appreciated by disaster responders and survivors alike, Crousore put it this way: "The best thing about the '93 flood was that it finally got Grandpa to shut up about the flood of '51."

Crousore was speaking before representatives of the nation's faith-based disaster response groups at a Forum on Domestic Disaster Ministry hosted by the Church World Service (CWS) Emergency Response Program at the Princeton Theological Seminary this week.

For a rural community, a disaster often becomes an important defining moment for people.

"In a small town you need to remember that there's a community memory there that is a basic resource you need to deal with.

"You need to find the persons who are the linked people," he added and that's not necessarily the mayor or other visible leader. "You need to find the persons who are linked to the past, linked to the stories, linked to each other."

When trying to coalesce disparate groups into an organized response, Crousore pointed out there is often at least one person within a rural community who doesn't want to work with others. "I call this the initiative control committee," said Crousore. "You can't co-opt him most of the time but you have to become acquainted with him."

Getting to know the rural fire department is also important, Crousore said. "They are major, major players. These are guys that are farmers, insurance salesmen and schoolteachers but they really take seriously their job as fire chief."

Rural fire departments often have a solid knowledge of toxic hazards. "Farmers are big users of fertilizers and chemicals. Rural fire departments are very knowledgeable about toxic materials, especially farm ones."

Art Jackson, recalling a response in Kansas with the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee, also emphasized the importance of simply getting to know people. "I went to the little town of Franklin, Kansas," he said. "And 95 percent of that little town was destroyed. And I met a man in a pickup truck, and it turned out he was the assistant emergency manager in the county and the fire chief.

"I asked him where everybody went. He said, 'I know where everyone of them is and I already know which ones aren't coming back.' "

After meeting people and listening to their stories, it's time to ask two questions, said Crousore. "After you've heard about when Grandpa lost the farm in the '30s and had to go to work at the chicken factory, the question you ask is: 'How did you get through that?'

"The second question you ask is: 'If that happens again, how are we going to get through it the next time?' And that's planning."

When reaching out to help in a rural community, faith-based groups may also come across people who don't want to ask for help because they're afraid of what their neighbors will think. "Confidentiality is a problem," said Crousore.

"What's the best thing about small communities? Everybody knows their neighbor. What's the worst thing about small communities? Everybody thinks they know their neighbors."

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