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Disaster calls for heroes


NORTH CAROLINA (Oct. 6, 1999) -- While Hurricane Floyd brought unprecedented devastation, it has also spotlighted the superheroes -- and the unsung heroes -- of disaster response.

Charlie Moeller is both. A Church World Service (CWS) disaster resource facilitator, he has been coordinating countless meetings, talking with frustrated flood survivors and caregivers alike, sharing eyewitness accounts with the press, and assessing damages.

All the while he's managed to keep a sense of humor appreciated by disaster workers in North Carolina -- and across the nation -- who have worked with him.

The title of facilitator fits Moeller, 65, to a tee. He assumes the role of CWS front man when he is assigned to a disaster, but usually Moeller's been busy behind the scenes well before he presents a recovery outline to an interfaith group.

In North Carolina, for example, Moeller made contact with local disaster relief officials, faith-based response leaders, local clergy, Salvation Army, American Red Cross, and many others. He is still organizing interfaith response efforts there.

Each disaster -- from those on the scale of Hurricane Floyd to localized tornadoes that destroy three homes -- presents its own unique challenges, according to Moeller. But the one thing he tries to instill in everyone is patience. You can't solve a community's needs overnight, he explains, and you must take advantage of available resources.

Patience is also virtuous when determining need since it doesn't always make itself apparent. Moeller recalled the North Dakota flooding recovery as an example. Survivors told volunteers that they were doing okay, but they should check on so-and-so down the road because they have a lot of damage. The next person said the same thing until it seemed that everyone was doing okay -- but everyone also needed assistance.

The work can be tedious, but it's necessary to keep survivors from falling through the cracks and getting no help at all.

"We're all facilitators in that we're making sure some victim gets connected with all of the good stuff out there," he said.

A Missouri native, Moeller finally ended up in Morgantown, N.C., where he worked for 12 years as a hospital administrator. Upon retirement, the Lutheran-bred Moeller called his local bishop and wanted to lend his services to the church. The clergyman led Moeller to the North Carolina branch of Lutheran Disaster Response, a cooperative ministry of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and The Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod (LCMS) which provides disaster relief services in the United States.

Moeller later joined the CWS team as disaster resource consultant for North Carolina, a role he fulfilled until CWS asked his to be Region IV disaster resource facilitator, which includes much of the U.S. Southeast. When disaster strikes that section of the country, it's more likely than not Moeller will be called upon to lend a hand as the effort moves into the recovery stage.

"It's exactly what I wanted to do in retirement," said Moeller, adding that his wife reminds him of the yard, basement and garage "disasters" at home. "I couldn't ask for a bigger blessing than to do something that is useful."

In an ideal situation, the faith community extends the invitation to CWS and Moeller when it needs help setting up interfaith disaster recovery. But sometimes it's Moeller making the first contact and taking a proactive approach. In either case, he takes fledgling interfaith teams by the hand and walks them through the recovery process, or comes back at a later date and trains members on recovery.

Moeller's dual role requires him to distribute practical advice while being a cheerleader for the cause. It's as important to make sure interfaith officials understand how to utilize their local resources and look ahead to the long haul as it is to provide encouragement to pastors trying to lead their communities and congregations through

rough times.

"A lot of pastors feel overwhelmed to do everything for everybody, often to their own neglect," says Moeller, noting that clergy turnover within the first year after a disaster is high.

After a long-term recovery meeting for the tornado disaster in Jackson, Tenn., Charlie Moeller is talking with a representative from a secular disaster relief organization.

Their conversation turns to the possibility of an interfaith group handling the recovery. That's great, the representative says, but she hints against using the word "interfaith" because it might discourage people from donating. Moeller has heard it before and knows how to reply.

"But that's what it is," he replies in a soft but stern tone that suggests the topic is now closed.

Any bad experiences are washed away by hundreds of good friends he's made while responding to disasters. Whether it's local officials rebuilding their communities or disaster response representatives from other denominations, Moeller feels they are all part of a network that can be tapped for their help and expertise when disaster strikes.

The concept of faith-based disaster relief, especially those situations involving several denominations, has gained acceptance over the years, says Moeller. CWS' relationship with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the American Red Cross has improved to where those organizations appreciate the role filled by faith-based groups.

Moeller doesn't foresee himself slowing down his work for CWS anytime soon. He provides the organization with his time and expertise, but Moeller believes he is the one who should thank CWS for the opportunity.

"I get a lot more out of it than they get out of me," he said.

Posted Oct. 6, 1999

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