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Volunteer brings heart to job

Retired Marine, now volunteer, meets challenge of coordinating FL relief logistics.

BY SUSAN KIM | LAKELAND, FL | September 24, 2004

"If I've got a truckload of heavy supplies, and on the other end I've got senior citizens without any equipment to unload it in the middle of the night - I've got a problem."

—Jim Wilson

Jim Wilson is staring at Hurricane Jeanne's projected path on his computer, then at maps on his left, and then at a marked-up whiteboard on his right, which is full of phone numbers and locations and lists of items.

The retired Marine Colonel is coordinating logistics for distribution of relief goods for the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church - and he actually enjoys this stuff.

Which is good. Because he does it for free.

In an unsung corner of the newly established Florida Storm Recovery Center, this volunteer is doing what he does best - physical distribution and movement of goods that help people in need. In Florida these days, it's cleanup kits, food, water, and other necessities.

On Thursday, he was pre-staging supplies in anticipation of Jeanne's potential landfall. But that doesn't mean landfall will happen, he said. "One thing I learned in the military - the plan may not go as planned."

Working in conjunction with the U.S. Agency for International Development, Wilson used to coordinate multi-agency disaster relief in Latin America, where he worked 19 disasters, including volcanic eruptions, cholera epidemics and earthquakes. He has a graduate degree in disaster assistance from Harvard.

And military contingency planning might sound impersonal, but right now itís helping Wilson think about the "people" aspect of his volunteer role. "You have to consider a lot of dimensions," he said. "If I've got a truckload of heavy supplies, and on the other end I've got senior citizens without any equipment to unload it in the middle of the night - I've got a problem."

His biggest complaint in general about disaster response in the U.S.? "Too few invest in mitigation and prevention and training. So people aren't prepared."

Finding reliable communication, mobilizing resources more quickly, and sustaining low-income families after a disaster hits are also things Wilson would like to see improved in this country.

Still, disaster recovery in the U.S. is faster than almost anywhere in the world, he said. "Our telephone trucks are there the next day. Our water systems come back up very quickly. One million people can be without power, and the next week, most of them are back up.

"Other nations might be devastated for years," he said. "In Latin America, distributing goods was incredibly difficult. There was so much corruption. Communities tended to be 10 percent rich and 90 percent poor - and supplies would get directed to affluent communities."

In the U.S., he said, people trust that their power and water will come back. "People have confidence in their government. And after Hurricane Andrew, the U.S. government did improve its disaster response."

Still, distribution is one of the most complex aspects of a recovery effort, and this hurricane season has strained logistics, he said. "After Charley, relief goods were going out. Then, after Frances, capacity got strained. We can't get things out as quickly."

As he arranges shipments of good from across the U.S., Wilson said he sees people's compassion, not their mistakes. "It's a myth that disasters bring out the worst in people," he said. "They bring out the best. It's about people working across faith lines for the common good."

Wilson has been writing grant applications to help raise money for the conference, which has also been supported by the United Methodist Committee on Relief.

And he hopes the compassion that people are feeling now will last through long-term recovery. "You get a lot of interest right up front that wanes," he said.

Wilson has a part-time job - he's director of urban ministry for Tampa - but he's got a full-time calling to help people, he said. "You do all you can do, for as many as you can, in whatever ways you can, for as long as you can."

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