Good Samaritans abound in NC

BY SUSAN KIM | GOLDSBORO, N.C. | October 21, 1999

GOLDSBORO, N.C. (Oct. 21, 1999) -- Bob Cook is at the helm of what could be called the Batmobiles of disaster response vehicles. At first they look like two mild-mannered tractor-trailers hunkering down in the parking lot of the Northview Christian Church.

But behind every cupboard door lies something useful in these post-disaster times -- generators, vacuum cleaners, ladders, shovels. Tarps, chainsaws, cots, rechargeable power tools. And it gets more high-tech: two-way radios, a laptop computer, a satellite phone.

Once designed to haul NASCAR racing vehicles, the two-story tractor trailers are now under the auspices of Samaritan's Purse, a nonprofit Christian mission organization headed by Franklin Graham, son of well-know evangelist Billy Graham.

But Cook, who is helping to coordinate response for Samaritan's Purse, doesn't have much time to bask in his surroundings. He's taking incoming calls from people who need help cleaning out their homes.

Then he fills out a work order, maps the location, and sends out the next volunteer team. And the volunteers aren't in short supply either - at least for now, when Hurricane Floyd recovery is still in the media spotlight.

He also fields calls from volunteers, trying to get them what they need so they can offer the most help in the shortest amount of time.

"You need ladders? How many? Four foot or six foot?"

"You need more Bibles? I'll get somebody to drop a box off."

"The first aid kit is in the back of the truck just down the road from you."

But some calls Cook just can't answer. "You need food? No, we don't provide that. You can go to the Salvation Army. You know where that is?"

Cook, one of a team of Samaritan's Purse staff who usually wear signature polo-style shirts emblazoned with their organizational logo, aren't suffering from lack of organizational identity. They can pop in a video, tell you the history of Samaritan's Purse, and give you an attractively-designed, glossy pamphlet explaining their mission.

But, to the 100-plus volunteers who descended on Goldsboro recently, and the flood survivors they helped, Samaritan's Purse represents a real way to help real people.

What Cook and his fellow Samaritans hope to leave behind is an ecumenical group that will continue their legacy. The trailers pulled in on Sept. 16 -- the day after Hurricane Floyd hit North Carolina -- and will soon move on to Greensville, another hard-hit community in the state.

"We're going to be leaving in two days," said Luther Harrison. "They'll never even know we're gone."

That's not because their help hasn't made a dent but because they've organized an interfaith group to carry on their mission.

As Evelyn Croom, a flood survivor, put it, "You can see this amount of destruction, and still see how God is bringing people together in love."

Elizabeth Ford, a Goldsboro resident whose home was inundated by floodwaters, sees it more pragmatically: "You know, this particular group not only has good intentions, but they're good at what they do. I mean, they're good at coordinating all this."

Volunteers either find a hotel, bring their own recreational vehicles, or sleep in the Northview Christian Church and eat meals prepared by neighborhood churches that take turns. "There's no one else in the church tonight," jokes Cook to some volunteers, pointing to the modest building. "You can pick out the honeymoon suite. The problem is -- the Jacuzzi is broken."

Heading up the interfaith group that will continue with long-term response are community leaders such as Tom Potter, a member of the New Hope United Methodist Church, and Terrry Johnson, manager of a local Christian television station.

Potter has already dubbed the fledging group the Wayne County Interfaith Recovery Response Team, "at least for now," he said. Three initial meetings have brought 100 people representing 35 churches.

"Someone has already donated office space, and a cellular phone company donated their equipment and services," he said. "As they (Samaritan's Purse) leave, we'll fill that vacuum. We'll be seeking volunteers for awhile to come."

Johnson said he is amazed at the extent to which churches have worked together. "I think the coalition has pulled together," he said. "It's work that, at this point, is both interdenominational and evangelical."

While Potter and Johnson continue working in their own community, Cook and the others will travel on to Greensville - and to other disasters in the U.S. and overseas.

One trailer has a million miles on it, the other 512,000. A trucking company in Boone, N.C., where Samaritan's Purse is based, donates maintenance for the vehicles. And, like many other disaster response workers, those traveling are starting to miss home. Samaritans Purse staff travel only about one-third of the time, but "my grandson scored two goals in soccer and I missed it," said Cook.

The trailers came from the Honduras, went straight to Oklahoma, then to North Carolina.

Harrison said that, here in North Carolina, he could sense the moment when interfaith group became "alive."

"At first they just sat there and listened -- no feedback," he said. "Then all of a sudden, one guy said, 'well, I've got this resource available, and another person said, 'well I can do this.'"

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