Good ways to help

BY JAMES B. KETCHAM | January 1, 1999

Disaster strikes and you want to help. Should you drive over and volunteer your services? Probably not. The initial response period is chaotic, frustrating and even dangerous at times.

While people naturally want to help when the disaster is in the news, the first response needs to come from trained professionals. Even later, the kinds of volunteers needed can vary greatly.

"We don't want to discourage volunteers, but volunteerism in disaster response is becoming more organized, and this is for the better," says Bob Arnold of the Church World Service Disaster Response Office (CWS). There are several phases to the aftermath of a disaster. Most agencies responding to disasters recognize stages such as emergency response, relief, recovery, mitigation and prevention, and preparedness. The types of volunteers needed -- and the agencies involved -- will vary with the stage.

Not many volunteers are needed from outside of the disaster region until the recovery period. For one thing, there are rarely enough accommodations (beds, food and water) available in the immediate vacinity for all those who might wish to volunteer to a stricken area.

The first type of volunteer needed at a disaster site usually arrives during the relief or recovery stage and is usually a volunteer already affiliated with and trained by a response organization. Workers who understand agency procedures and services and the physical and emotional dangers are most likely to be productive and least likely to get in the way despite their best intentions.

Ellie Wykstra of Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC) notes that most of the immediate response is handled by local safety agencies, the Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in the first few days.

"Sometimes by the first weekend (after a disaster) you can get a lot of local volunteers for clean up. With a tornado or hurricane, you can start the clean up process in a few days. You'll also find rapid response organizations like CRWRC, Lutheran Disaster Response (LDR) and the Mennonites doing things like putting tarps on damaged roofs and other temporary repairs."

This clean up phase can last two to three or four months, especially if the disaster was flood-related. Mucking out the mud can go on for some time after the water recedes, Wykstra says. "Long-term rebuilding is really just getting going in the Grand Forks (ND) area," one year after the floods, "and it could go on for another two or three years. The last phase is still going on in Homestead, FL, from Hurricane Andrew in 1994."

After the initial recovery and clean up stages, local community response is organized, often through an interfaith group. Here the national faith-based organizations and local congregations work together, responding to those whose needs are not met by government programs or private insurance. Often the first step is a door-to-door survey of the affected area to determine who is suffering and identify recovery needs.

Once the needs assessment is completed, casework and advocacy follow. This work is being turned over to faith-based organizations more often, increasing the need for trained volunteers who can listen, make appropriate referrals and act as advocates within the sometimes bewildering maze of public and private agencies involved.

Next, groups such as Lutheran Disaster Response, CRWRC, the Mennonite Disaster Services (MDS), Church of the Brethren and United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) provide skilled volunteer craftsmen to get the rebuilding done right.

According to Wykstra, "Most of the CRWRC volunteers are retired or semi-retired and we list them by their skills. They either call in after a disaster, or we call them to fill spots for the types of activities we'll be involved in. We try to organize groups so that we will have from 15 to 30 people rotating in three week time slots, so you've got continuity. Once we start, we're there to the end.

"We have a minimum of two to four skilled workers per group. These are people with careers in the building trades or contractors. Then we have workers with some skills, but who need supervision. Then you have the helpers or go-fers. We don't get into the type of work that requires licensing, such as electrical, because that requires knowledge of local codes. We do carpentry and finishing and help the local interfaith contract out for things like electrical and heating systems."

Not all volunteers need to be skilled carpenters. As Stan Hankins of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance puts it, "You may have a relatively unskilled group, but if you do proper planning, have the materials and good supervision on site, you can use whatever skill level you've been given."

Several denominational programs are specializing in particular services. Bob Arnold of CWS says, "Agencies have started to choose niches, so it is even more important to offer your specific skills and go in under the umbrella of an organization that focuses on those skills."

The Southern Baptists often provide mass feeding, while Church of the Brethren focuses on child care, a service vital to families struggling to recover. According to Miller Davis if the Church of the Brethren, "Child care volunteers must complete our 24-hour training and be certified by our trainer after background checks have been run. These volunteers are recruited either by our national office, or by one of the 10 regional Child Care Coordinators. Child Care volunteers are the first we have on a site, usually after we are invited by the Red Cross."

The United Church of Christ (UCC) is just starting a Resource Unit on Technological Disasters that will focus on industrial accidents, pollution spills, etc., but just how they will use volunteers for such dangerous and technical work is still to be determined

Adventist Community Services (ACS) specializes in collecting, processing, distributing and warehousing of donated goods during the relief and recovery stage.

John Gavin reports ACS has "a mix of national volunteer consultants trained to go anywhere and be coaches, facilitators and managers; whatever's needed." One to three such consultants are typically deployed at any given time. Volunteers from local Adventist churches who live in or near the affected area join them. If an Adventist school is nearby, the youth are often involved, coming in for a weekend to a week or more.

Volunteers needed for this kind of work include those with backgrounds in management and logistics. Previous experience in managing volunteers is also very useful. All would-be volunteers are urged to come forward and receive training.

Church World Service is seeking volunteers who have particular skills in mitigation, prevention and preparedness. Structural drawings and engineering consultants are needed to rebuild homes safely. Appliances, hot water heaters and furnaces may need to be relocated within dwellings and sometimes entire communities may need to be moved.

What's the bottom line for would-be volunteers? They are needed, even long after the immediate response phase is completed and the disaster has faded from the news.

But the best way to volunteer is to call a faith-based disaster response organization BEFORE the next disaster and report interests and skills. The organization can tell potential volunteers, what if any, training is required and what opportunities are available.

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