By Linda Unger*
May 12, 2011—Last month’s outbreak of powerful tornadoes left a whirlwind of need in its wake—a twister that was quickly wrapped in a flood and threatened with hurricanes.
“In the 13 years I’ve worked in US Disaster Response, there never has been a series of emergencies as widespread as what we’re seeing this year,” said Rev. Tom Hazelwood, who heads this office for the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR).
“There have been tornado outbreaks before, but the outbreaks of 2011 have affected communities in so many annual conferences, most severely in Alabama. And then there’s this ongoing flooding,” Hazelwood said, referring to current Mississippi River, Red River, and Lake Champlain flooding.
“There also are wildfires across the Southwest,” he added. “It’s pretty unprecedented in terms of the scope and variety of events—and the hurricane season hasn’t even started yet.”
In the past six weeks, UMCOR has disbursed nearly $200,000 in emergency grants, not including those which are sure to follow on the heels of slow-rolling flooding of the Mississippi River and its tributaries in Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana.
UMCOR also dispatched staff to the North Carolina, North Alabama, Tennessee, Memphis, Mississippi, and Holston annual conferences to help set up emergency call centers and conduct trainings for early response teams and spiritual and emotional care teams.
Hazelwood had long been set to travel to Tennessee this month to follow up on recovery efforts in Nashville and Memphis after severe 2010 flooding. That state has been hit this spring by severe storms, tornadoes, and now, floods.
Over the past two weeks, UMCOR’s US Disaster Response executive also traveled to Alabama and North Carolina, both hit hard by tornado outbreaks about 10 days apart. Alabama took the brunt of tornadoes and severe storms that blundered through 18 states, especially in the South, between April 21 and 28.
Survival, Loss, and Near Misses
Just two days after tornadoes roared through Lawrence County, Alabama, on April 27, Gil Hanke, general secretary of the General Commission on United Methodist Men and an UMCOR-trained early responder, was asked by county officials to assess equipment needs in the town of Moulton.
“We visited about 30 families. The equipment they needed most was a backhoe, a backward loader, and a dump truck: There was nothing salvageable,” Hanke reported. At the top of a hill, where five or six mobile homes had been, there were none, he said, only some steel frames wrapped around power lines.
“I met a man who survived in the one small section of his house that was left standing, a closet,” Hanke said. “When I asked him how he was, he said, ‘My sinuses are bothering me a bit.’ I thought it strange he should say that, but he said, ‘No matter how much I lost, I didn’t lose as much as my neighbors, who lost their 11-year-old girl.’”
Hanke said it was “an honor” to visit with survivors. “When they recognized his UMCOR vest, he said, “They told us they trusted us; they said, ‘We’re glad you’re here.’ They were thankful they survived.”
Hazelwood too, spent time with survivors as well as with local bishops and their disaster response and mission coordinators, and with volunteers involved in early cleanup operations.
“I met a man in North Carolina who’d been working in the yard, when suddenly his wife called him to get inside,” Hazelwood said. “As they fled into the house, the tornado was right on top of them. They dove into the bathtub as the door bulged, then blew away.”
The couple told Hazelwood how grateful they were that the United Methodist Church had been there to help them clean up after the storm. “Volunteers came in to help clean up and sort through what they had left,” Hazelwood said.
A Way Forward
Sifting through the needs of those impacted by the storms and identifying resources to piece together a future for them and their communities is an arduous and delicate task, like sifting through rubble and memories.
“Lots of things are still swirling around, and we’re trying to help the conferences grapple with them,” said Hazelwood.
Those states hit by the first round of storms, including North Carolina, are now between relief and recovery, preparing to set a course for the long term. When the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) finishes its assessments, they will have a better sense of what that course will look like.
Those hit by the second tornado outbreak, especially Alabama, are still sorting through debris. “The scope of the damage and work is so much larger in Alabama than anywhere else,” Hazelwood said.
He and other UMCOR personnel are providing necessary training and, he said, “helping the North Alabama Conference steer its way forward in making decisions about how they are going to be involved in long-term recovery. Spiritual and emotional issues are also surfacing, and we’re helping with that.”
There is still a great need for cleaning buckets, a need that will only increase with the rising floodwaters and the hurricanes that will surely make themselves felt later in the summer. Cleaning buckets can be sent to any of the depots in the UMCOR Relief-Supply Network.
Funding Concerns UMCOR has so far disbursed 16 emergency grants since April 1, most of them to annual conferences affected by the tornado outbursts and severe weather that accompanied them, although there were also grants to assist those threatened by wildfires and flooding.
“Those funds have been helping to meet the most basic needs—buying water, food, and clothing,” said Hazelwood. “When we move to long-term recovery, there will be great need to help families rebuild and repair their homes. A large number of homes were completely destroyed, and we’ll need to rebuild them from the ground up.”
Another important part of long-term recovery is case management, a one-on-one ministry with families seeking not only to rebuild their homes but their lives as well. Funding will be needed for administering this ministry.
“We have 12 annual conferences that have been affected by these storms and they all have some degree of need. They’re going to need financial resources to enable the church to be in ministry with those who have been affected,” said Hazelwood.
And as the mighty Mississippi rolls through and crests in state after state, town after town, needs are sure to multiply in the coming weeks and months.
After years of relatively mild spring storm seasons and heightened priorities provoked by “super disasters” elsewhere in the world, funds destined for UMCOR’s US Disaster Response ministry are perilously low.
Hazelwood reiterated UMCOR’s “absolute commitment” to walk alongside those communities and churches that have been devastated by spring storms, flooding, wildfires, and tornadoes.
You can help. Your gift to US Spring Storms 2011, UMCOR Emergency Advance #3021316, will make it possible for UMCOR to be there, be hope. Please give generously.
*Linda Unger is staff editor and senior writer for UMCOR.