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Not ready for volunteers

Disaster relief organizations are having to turn away volunteers due to the harsh conditions in the hurricane-affected areas.

BY HEATHER MOYER | BALTIMORE | September 1, 2005

Disaster relief organizations are having to turn away volunteers for the time being due to the harsh conditions in the hurricane-affected areas.

Many organizations report receiving thousands of phone calls from people wanting to help, and the most some agencies can do is take their names for future reference. Relief organizations that typically enter disaster areas immediately are being told they cannot yet enter.

Responders say the region cannot handle any more people traveling into town. "There are limited local resources, there's not enough to go around to the people who are already here -- much less folks coming from the outside," said Kristina Peterson of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance in Louisiana.

"There are no sleeping arrangements. There is marshal law in some areas. Other areas are being declared health risks with chances of epidemics. There are parts of cities that are in lock-down because of civil disturbances. Gas is impossible to get. Systems are stressed."

Peterson is currently helping set up a recovery organization for devastated areas in Louisiana and said it's important to emphasize that it just too early to be accepting volunteers.

Melvin Brackman, coordinator for Lutheran Disaster Response in Alabama, agreed with Peterson about safety issues. "Volunteers at this stage are at risk, and we have no safe work for them," he explained.

"Normal disasters could be into a phase next week where some volunteers could be useful, but Katrina is different. First responders have soaked up all available rooms, except those occupied by early refugees. Where would the volunteers stay?"

Disaster responders also worry that the volunteers asking to help are not yet trained for the recovery either. Some are encouraging them to take training with a specific organization while they wait to be called for help.

"We are not asking for Volunteer In Mission teams yet," said Sandy Rowland, the director of the Volunteers In Mission program for the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church, in a news release.

"Only Early Response teams are being invited to come, (but) not until next month at the least. This will be a hard one to work with and people need to have a disaster sense when they go, and training. I suggest they come to our fall trainings and get the knowledge and information first. They will need teams for years to come."

Peterson noted that there are plenty of other ways people around the country can help without traveling down South.

"Organize fund-raisers for long-term recovery efforts," Peterson explained. "Start making an inventory of resources that can be shared and skills that can be harnessed."

The United Methodist Committee on Relief and Church World Service are both encouraging the public to put together health kits and flood buckets for affected families. Details on the making of those are available on both organization's websites.

While no volunteers are yet welcome after Katrina, some relief workers responding to disasters from earlier this year and from last year's devastating hurricanes say they are in desperate need of volunteers. Bill Wealand, disaster response coordinator for the United Church of Christ in Florida said they still have 43,000 homes in need of significant repairs from last year's hurricane season alone.

"We've got lots of work to do but we're struggling to find volunteers to help us get it done," said Wealand, who added that they have plenty of space to house volunteers across the state.

He said he understands the great attention to the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina, but also worries that other disaster survivors around the U.S. will be forgotten. "Right now we're investing a lot of time and energy in stimulating new volunteer groups."

And like Florida after last year's hurricane season, volunteers will be needed for years across the the Gulf Coast area as well. Peterson said she hopes all those who want to volunteer will still want to do it months and years down the road. They just have to wait for now.

"Systems for volunteers are developing but it really needs to be at the call of the folks in the states affected as to when they are ready for help."

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Related Links:

United Methodist Committee on Relief Kit Information

Church World Service Tools & Blankets

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