Faith organizations plan response

As emergency responders continued to search for survivors across the South, faith-based disaster response organizations reach out to survivors.

BY JOHN PAPE | HOUSTON, TX | May 1, 2011

Even as rescue teams continued to search through debris and destroyed homes in the wake of the massive outbreak of tornadoes across the South, a host of faith-based organizations began the work of helping survivors recover.

On Friday, the death toll from Wednesday’s record-setting storm system reached 340, making it the deadliest tornado outbreak to hit the United States since 1932.

Among the faith-based organizations responding to the disaster were: the Salvation Army, Episcopal Relief & Development, CRWRC, Disciples of Christ, Mennonite Disaster Service, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Those groups were joined by numerous local churches and nonprofits that pitched in provide meals and shelter, search for victims and clear roads of downed trees and utility lines.

The early response work of faith-based organizations has been varied, but focused on the needs of storm survivors

Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC) which had earlier this month sent staff trained to begin early assessments in North Carolina, is now working with other partners to begin to plan the massive response that will be needed following last week’s tragedy.

“CRWRC has worked in numerous southern communities over the years helping them recover from hurricanes and tornadoes,” says DRS director Bill Adams. ”The destruction from this week’s tornado outbreak in Alabama, however, rivals the worst we have seen in years. We are now developing plans for a long-term commitment to those who are affected.”

Regional managers and other team leaders are exploring how to add additional volunteers to continue to address clean-up and roofing needs, provide emotional and spiritual support, and coordinate planning for the longer-term response. Adams says that additional volunteers are being assembled to respond to the needs in Alabama because of this week’s devastation.

Episcopal Relief and Development reported it was reaching out to parishes located within the storm-devastated areas.

Katie Mears, program manager for the U.S. Disaster Program, was in contact with the Episcopal Dioceses of Alabama and Atlanta. Mears said initial reports indicated none of the churches in the Diocese of Atlanta were damaged, but there were a number of parishes with families impacted by the storms.

Additionally, several local churches were involved in immediate relief efforts, including providing temporary shelter and distributing food and other necessities, according to Mears.

“The Diocesan Disaster Coordinator in Atlanta has been in contact and we are waiting to see how we can be of assistance,” Mears said.

Mears also said the Diocese of Alabama was still in the assessment phase, but at least one church was beginning to respond to local needs.

“We have been in touch and we are ready to assist them as they carry out this valuable ministry,” Mears said.

The Disciples of Christ’s Amy Gopp said information has been slow to emerge from many of the storm-devastated areas due to damage to communications infrastructure, but the church was ready to provide help through its “Week of Compassion” ministry.

Gopp said the church had not yet heard of any damage to church buildings in Alabama or Georgia, and there have been no reported casualties among church members. A number of families, however, had their homes either damaged or destroyed.

Two churches were damaged in Kentucky. Additionally, the homes of several church members in Tennessee received damage.

“We have responded to those needs and stand ready to offer more help as they continue to emerge,” Gopp noted.

Week of Compassion donations will be used to provide aid to tornado victims, as well as to supply needed resources to Disciples volunteers that are expected to be part of the long-term recovery effort.

In addition to the widespread destruction from the tornado outbreak, Gopp said the church was also readying resources to respond to possible flooding in the Midwest and Mid-South.

Calling the tornado damage “catastrophic,” Mennonite Disaster Service Executive Director Kevin King dispatched Region II Director Leonard Kennell and Disaster Response Coordinator Jerry Klassen to Alabama to assist in the needs evaluation and coordinate MDS’ response. The team of disaster response specialists came at the request of the Mennonite Disaster Service’s Alabama Unit.

In addition, MDS placed trained early response teams on standby. Those teams will be sent into affected areas as soon as needs are determined.

As of Friday one MDS early response team was already enroute to Alabama from Indiana.

The active spring storm system already has MDS personnel at work in a number of areas. Local church regions and units were already taking part in clean-up and rebuilding efforts in such areas as North Carolina, Oklahoma and Arkansas.

The Salvation Army provided mobile feeding units, while trained Salvationists were offering emotional and spiritual support.

Crews were deployed in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Tennessee and Kentucky, according to Media Relations Coordinator William C. Hale. Additional emergency disaster service teams remained on standby throughout the South, should they be needed.

In Alabama, Salvation Army teams had served roughly 4,650 meals by Friday at locations across the state. The Salvation Army of Florida sent 10 mobile feeding units staffed by volunteers and emergency disaster services staff to assist with the Alabama operation.

A specially-trained emotional and spiritual care team was sent into Marion County, where at least 21 people died and another 20 remained missing.

In addition, 250 meals were served in the community of Hackleburg, which was totally flattened in the storm. Resources were so limited that local authorities were forced to use refrigerated trucks to hold the bodies of the dead.

In Tuscaloosa one of the hardest hit of all the storm-devastated communities where at least 45 people died the Salvation Army provided 750 meals. Teams were providing assistance even though Tuscaloosa’s Salvation Army building was totally destroyed, resulting in the loss of much-needed shelter space and other emergency resources and supplies.

In Mississippi, where at least 34 died in the storms, Salvation Army feeding units were in service in Kemper County, Webster County and the city of Oxford, home of the University of Mississippi. As of Friday, teams had served 650 meals in addition to providing emotional and spiritual support.

Feeding and spiritual support teams were also deployed across much of northern Georgia. Five meal stations were operational in Griffin to serve the communities of Sunny Side, Vaughn, Barnesville and the surrounding areas. As of Friday, Salvation Army teams had provided 1,960 meals, 2,678 bottles of water, 48 clean-up kits and 62 snacks.

A feeding station in Rome, Ga. had provided 230 meals, 600 bottles of water and offered spiritual support to 20 storm victims. EDS personnel expected to serve at least 500 for the Friday evening meal.

Additional Salvation Army teams from the Kentucky/Tennessee Division were providing food, beverages and support to various locations in Georgia, including the hard-hit town of Ringgold where eight died, 30 were hospitalized and at least 150 were left homeless.

Numerous locations across Tennessee also reported moderate to severe tornado, water and hail damage, and EDS crews were assisting in Chattanooga, Cleveland, Murfreesboro, Union City, Clarksville, Greenville and Memphis. No count on the number of meals served in Tennessee was immediately available, but Salvation Army personnel estimated the number to be “in the thousands.”

Salvation Army personnel also continued to assist storm survivors in the Kentucky communities of Paducah, Henderson and Louisville. In addition to damage from the tornado outbreak, a number of areas in Kentucky were bracing for flooding in the coming days. EDS personnel were evaluating the risks in vulnerable areas and making preparations should a response be needed.

Despite widespread damage to churches, church facilities, the North Alabama Conference of The United Methodist Church immediately began reaching out to devastated communities to provide assistance.

The Rev. Matt Lacey, North Alabama Conference Director of Mission and Advocacy, said he had been overwhelmed with “hundreds of phone calls and e-mails” from individuals asking how they could help with the recovery process. Many of those asking to volunteer had sustained personal losses in the storms.

“God truly moves through and with us during these times,” Lacy said. “Today we have begun to distribute relief through the various districts, and we are making some great progress in evaluating everything.”

Lacy said the conference was establishing a network of “home base” churches in affected areas to assist in storing supplies, staging volunteers and housing those affected.

“We expect to begin organizing and dispatching UMCOR Emergency Response Trained individuals at the beginning of next week,” he said.

Lacy also stressed the fact the conference was in organizing mode did not mean direct aid was not yet flowing.

“From the moment the storms left, United Methodist Churches around this conference have reached out to their communities to be a part of the recovery. Tuscaloosa First started a feeding program and housing volunteers; Good Shepard in the Northeast District opened its doors to those without a home with the Red Cross and Arab First immediately was a witness for Christ,” Lacy said. “This is a very small sample of the overall response. As United Methodists, since the moment the tornadoes hit, we have helped and saved many, many lives.”

North Alabama Conference Bishop Will Willimon asked every church in North Alabama to consider receiving a special offering for the churches and the victims of the storms.

“I have been moved by the outpouring of grief, prayers and offers for help from Methodists all over the connection,” Willimon said. “Our churches had a remarkable outpouring of help for the victims of Katrina. Now we have the opportunity to help closer to home.”

Willimon also urged all church members to offer special prayers for storm survivors.

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