RALEIGH, NC: Just one day after Hurricane Isabel slammed into the eastern coast, the United Methodist North Carolina Disaster Response Team was visiting stricken communities, mobilizing resources and beginning to look at long-term recovery plans. Twenty-six counties in the state have been declared federal disaster areas, clearing the way for federal assistance.
Four days after the storm, the team was meeting in Greenville to discuss early assessments that its 12 district representatives had conducted in the stricken areas. Among those attending the meeting and providing input were officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
By the next day, Bishop Marion Edwards of the Eastern North Carolina Annual Conference was on the road with members of the UM Disaster Response Team traveling to affected communities to check on residents and local churches.
"We are the best prepared that we have ever been," Edwards said. "We are in the best position to make a difference."
One of the leaders of that effort is Barbara Tripp, executive director of the Marion Edwards Recovery Center Initiative (MERCI) in Goldsboro. MERCI is a unique ongoing operation that allows United Methodists to respond immediately-- and then to continue for weeks, months or years as the recovery phase of a disaster moves forward.
"Without a doubt, they're one of the very best," said Tom Hazelwood, executive secretary for domestic disaster response for the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), who was touring mid-Atlantic states damaged by Hurricane Isabel.
The organization is an outgrowth from United Methodist recovery efforts during Hurricane Floyd in 1999. During that emergency, the group, then known as Disaster Recovery Ministries, purchased a 46,000-square-foot warehouse on 22 acres of land to house materials for response to that storm. The warehouse and site held donations as well as supplies, tools, equipment and vehicles used in Floyd recovery efforts.
"It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out you don't throw this stuff away when you finish the recovery effort because, in North Carolina, you're going to get another [hurricane]," Tripp said. "It's going to happen."
"We work with individual churches to get them ready. We train early response teams. We teach people how to do damage assessments and case management."
Last August, the district representatives -- some of whom who were new to the job -- spent two days in disaster response training. That training paid off when Isabel hit.
"They were trained and we were ready," Tripp said. "It only took a few phone calls. They know what they're supposed to be out there doing."
As the representatives gathered information from their districts on the extent of the storm damage, they relayed that data back to the warehouse, then sent trucks laden with supplies to hard-hit communities.
"We have sent truckloads of stuff out every day since the hurricane," Tripp noted.
That "stuff" includes flood buckets, water, tarps and portable generators. More than 800 flood buckets filled with cleaning supplies that had been received from UMCOR Sager Brown were distributed in the first few days after Isabel came ashore. Work crews with chainsaws also were sent out to help clear trees felled by the storm, she added.
MERCI was able to respond quickly "because we had people on the ground who knew what they were doing and were able to say, 'This is what we have got to have as soon as you can get it to us.'"
It also helped that MERCI, when not doing disaster response, is involved in a project to build affordable housing for rural low-income residents in the southern part of the state (an area not affected by Isabel). MERCI also has a staff that includes a licensed contractor and three construction coordinators. Volunteers help to build the homes.
"We're always working. We're always using volunteers," Tripp said. "So the coordination system for the volunteers is there. You just direct it in a different way."
Tripp estimated that recovery efforts from Isabel would likely take a year to a year and a half. One of the biggest challenges in responding, she said, will be money.
"When you get to the recovery stage, the United Methodist Church is at its best," he said. "It's most effective in disasters in the long-term phase of recovery."
Edwards, who also toured Hatteras, said he was surprised by the devastation he found there.
"It was not just a matter of houses being damaged," said Edwards. "They were completely wiped away. There's nothing left. These people are going to need help from everybody."
Tripp said that MERCI was effective because of the experience gained from Floyd and other disaster responses.
"Everything we learned in Floyd we were determined not to forget," she said. "We were going to build on that. So by the time Isabel came, we had all the experience and knew what to do and didn't have to wait two or three weeks to make decisions. All that we had to do was to do it."
UMCOR's response to Hurricane Isabel includes the Baltimore-Washington, Peninsula-Delaware, North Carolina and Virginia United Methodist conferences. You can help with these recovery and cleanup efforts with your generous gift to Hurricanes 2003 Advance #982438.
This story has been adapted from an article that PJ Heller wrote for Disaster News Network, http://www.disasternews.net.
Photos: 1. Hurricane Isabel created a breach on North Carolina Highway 12, isolating the Village of Hatteras (N.C) on September 18. The breach is 1700 feet wide and 10 ft. deep. 2. Bishop Marion Edwards (center, cap) prepares to lead a team of United Methodists and others on a visit to the village of Hatteras, N.C. Hurricane Isabel created an inlet that cut the village off from the rest of Cape Hatteras. Edwards leads the United Methodist Church's Raleigh (N.C.) Area. Credit: UMNS photos by Bill Norton. Click on any photo to see a larger version.
Please give generously to UMCOR's Hurricanes 2003, Advance #982438. Your tax-deductible gift may be placed in United Methodist church offering plates or sent directly to: UMCOR, 475 Riverside Drive, Room 330, New York, N.Y. 10115. Checks should be written to UMCOR. Call 1-800-554-8583 to make a credit card donation. Persons who can volunteer to work in the recovery efforts may call UMCOR's Volunteer Line toll free: 1-800-918-3100.
You can also help replenish the supply of flood buckets at the UMCOR Sager Brown Depot. Flood buckets are filled with cleaning supplies that people use to clean their homes after floods and hurricanes. For assembly and shipping instructions, call the depot at 1-800-814-8765 or visit UMCOR's emergency kits webpage. Please note that UMCOR cannot pay for shipping or pick up flood buckets to transport them to the depot. You may also give a financial donation to purchase cleaning supplies that the Depot staff and volunteers will use to assemble flood buckets. To help purchase cleaning supplies, give to UMCOR's Material Resource Ministry, Advance #901440.