May 15, 2013

Faith Community Key to Disaster Preparedness, Long-term Recovery

Workers on ladders
Members of a Maplewood United Methodist Church (St. Louis, Mo.) work crew, who spent a week in 2012 helping Buchanan County (Mo.) households repair and rebuild following prolonged flooding there. Photo: Jerry Blackwell

Church World Service emphasizes faith community involvement in recovery following a disaster.  Faith-based groups play a key role in helping survivors access the material, emotional, spiritual and human resources they need to get back on their feet and go on with their lives.

A good case study can be found in Buchanan County in Northwest Missouri. 

The county’s western border is the Missouri River.  Record rainfall and snowmelt to the north swelled the river in spring 2011, leading the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to begin a controversial four-month series of record releases of water from the Gavins Point and other Missouri River dams.

As a result, “scores of homes in Buchanan County were under water for four months, and once the releases were cut back, the water didn’t drain off all at once,” said Beverly Maltsberger, a community emergency management specialist at the Buchanan County Extension Center in St. Joseph, Mo.  “We went into winter still flooded, delaying cleanup until spring 2012.”

Meanwhile, efforts to establish a long-term recovery group floundered – that is, “until we put together a list of churches in the community that we thought would be interested and invited them to a meeting.

“We explained that money from insurance policies and FEMA would not cover homeowners’ rebuilding costs,” Maltsberger said.  A long-term recovery committee was needed to receive private donations of funds and goods, and manage volunteers. “’That’s the situation,’ we told them, ‘and the churches need to take the lead.’”

The churches quickly said yes, and Huffman United Methodist Church stepped up to be the official 501(c)(3).

“All we’ve done, really, is create an infrastructure, a forum, for the faith community to do what it really longed to do,” said the Rev. Darrell Jones, Senior Pastor of Grace Evangelical Church in St. Joseph, Mo., who chairs the Buchanan County Long-Term Recovery Committee.

Before, congregations would offer help on an ad hoc basis, he said, then “go back to our forts and feel like we’d done something.  As members of a long-term recovery committee, we are making a coordinated and sustained contribution.” 

Maltsberger, who serves as the committee’s secretary, said CWS’s long-term recovery webinars (www.cwsglobal.org/ltrwebinars) have been very helpful in undergirding the committee’s work. 

Over the past year, the committee has mobilized work crews from area churches to prepare meals for beleaguered flood survivors, muck out their homes, tear out rotting stairs, put up new drywall, and clear dead trees and other debris from their yards.

Chain saw crews from Green Valley Baptist Church (St. Joseph, Mo.), Savannah (Mo.) First Baptist Church, Liberty (Mo.) United Methodist Church, and Maplewood United Methodist Church (St. Louis, Mo.) achieved the monumental task of getting trees cut up and the pieces piled up for removal.

“In the process,” Jones said, “from a pastoral perspective it was interesting to see another piece of this, the importance of a conversation with people who – a year after FEMA and the Red Cross have left – still don’t have their lives back together.  They needed someone to come alongside them, and walk, talk, even pray with them.”

Echoed Maltsberger, “I assured a woman who called my office that we would ‘find a way to help you out somehow,’ and she just broke down and started crying on the phone, so grateful that someone was trying to help her.  I didn’t feel like I was offering anything huge, but to her it was huge.”

The 2011 flood destroyed one home, and caused major damage to 87 homes and minor to 37 in Buchanan County.  The long-term recovery committee assisted 58 households, and has “closed all cases” except one – a person who got in contact only recently.

Its mission nearly accomplished, the committee is not disbanding – far from it.  “Now we’re looking at where we are vulnerable for the next disaster, and trying to aggressively fill those holes and gaps,” Jones said.

The committee recently sponsored an intensive training for volunteer disaster case managers, and 35 people registered.  Lutheran Family and Child Services and UMCOR provided the training, and a CWS long-term recovery grant of $5,000 will soon be used for a disaster case management exercise.

“They all want to practice their skills before the next disaster.  Living on the Missouri River, I don’t think we’ve seen our last flood,” she said.  “Nor is the area likely to have seen its last tornado or ice storm.”

 “We are really happy that we have added to our human infrastructure in the county,” Maltsberger said.  “We will also work with other counties around us – and hope to develop a network of long-term recovery committees in this area.

Buchanan County’s long-term recovery committee includes “everyone from independent Protestants to Roman Catholics to Southern Baptists and United Methodists,” Jones noted.  “Their sustained attendance and participation speaks volumes about the gratification they receive from what they are doing.”