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Relief groups learn to ‘dance together’ in disaster response

In disaster ministry, the Rev. George Abrams of Cheney knows that faith-based, voluntary, community and government disaster groups need to work together, respecting each other’s roles in the emergency, relief and recovery phases of a disaster.

“The groups need to learn to ‘dance together’ in the disaster response process so they don’t step on each other’s toes,” said George, who decided in 2006, after 10 years as pastor of Cheney United Methodist Church and five years as a minister in Olympia, to enter disaster ministry.

George Abrams
George Abrams with child in Haiti in 2005

He also brings 27 years of experience with the Washington State Patrol in Vancouver and Olympia, 25 years as an EMT and degrees in police science, education and business administration, as well as master’s and doctoral degrees in theology.  During his years of study and work, he was active as a lay leader with United Methodist local, regional and national ministries. 

With experience responding to a tornado in Vancouver in 1975, to Mt. St. Helen’s eruption in 1980 and as an EMT first responder, George developed a sense of call to disaster ministry while in Cheney.

The church gave him time to work with the Red Cross to coordinate 750 chaplains giving spiritual care to victims, families and caregivers after the Sept. 11 destruction of the World Trade Center in New York City.

He also joined three Volunteer in Mission (VIM) teams for two-week mission trips to Haiti in 2002, 2003 and 2005, as well as six VIM trips to build homes in Mexico.

From that experience, as well as from his three roles in domestic disaster ministry, George anticipates what’s ahead for long-term recovery in Haiti and offers insights into the faith community’s and volunteer agencies’ roles in recovery processes.

George has three roles.

As part-time volunteer agency liaison (VAL) with the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), he works with long-term recovery groups, Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster (VOADs) and Community Organizations Active in Disaster (COADs), which include representatives of churches and faith groups, on domestic disaster response.  In 2009, he worked as a FEMA VAL—two months on Western Washington flooding and three weeks in Anchorage with destruction on the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers after spring breakup.

As United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) disaster coordinator for the Pacific Northwest Conference of the United Methodist Church, he is currently coordinating efforts of churches in Washington and Northern Idaho to prepare health kits to send to the UMCOR depot in Salt Lake City.  From there kits will go to Haiti or be stored for other disasters.

As chaplain for the Cheney police and fire departments, the Red Cross and Eastern Washington University since 1998, he sets aside his denominational hat and responds to people from many faiths as they face a crisis or sudden death, meeting them where they are and helping them go where they want to go. 

In Haiti, George wonders about the damage in two communities he visited—Jérémie on the north side of the peninsula west of Port-au-Prince and Cayes on the south side. 

School in Jeremie, Haiti
Volunteers worked on school in Jeremie, Haiti, in 2005

Is the high ceiling of the Methodist church in Jérémie, built in 1847, still there?  Did the 400-student private school, on which he helped build a third floor, survive?  What about the people and their homes?  What will be rebuilt?  What are the spiritual-care needs of the people?

Considering long-term recovery a social-work process of meeting people with unmet needs and “bringing them back to a new normal,” George said his prayer for Haiti is that “God’s amazing ability will bring good out of a bad situation.”  That’s a phrase he picked up from St. Paul.  It was reinforced in the book, A Paradise Built in Hell, by Rebecca Solnit, who went to areas that had suffered disasters and saw how lives of people who experienced them had improved.

For example, after the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City, previously exploited textile workers raised their standard of living enough that they unionized.

“Churches, faith-based groups and volunteers have been in Haiti for years and will continue to be there for the future,” he said.

George hopes that when Port-au-Prince is rebuilt it will be rebuilt with electrical, sewer and water systems that work, rather than be put back to where it was, with electricity turned off at 6:30 p.m. every day. He knows that Volunteer in Mission teams will eventually go there to help rebuild.
Turning to his focus on domestic disaster recovery, he described how the social-work model plays out in his work with FEMA to coordinate voluntary and faith-based organizations, such as he did after Western Washington floods in 2006, 2008 and 2009.

George goes into a community after a nationally declared disaster and if there isn’t a Long-Term Recovery Group (LTRG), he contacts the county emergency manager, the Red Cross, the Chamber of Commerce, United Way and the ministers’ association to help form a LTRG.
The work of the voluntary community group is to contact people after government programs and insurance claims have ended.

“We find people with unmet needs.  They are usually the widow, the orphan and the immigrant, those whom our faith calls us to serve,” he said.

First, caseworkers meet with disaster victims and develop recovery plans.  Then caseworkers bring the proposals to the common table of a LTRG, which usually include representatives of United Church of Christ, Presbyterian, United Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopal, Mennonite, Catholic Charities, Christian Reformed, Salvation Army, Evangelical, Pentecostal and Independent churches, along with Community Action Programs, United Way organizations, Amateur Radio, the Red Cross and other faith-based and volunteer organizations.
Meeting frequently to work on disaster recovery—otherwise meeting bimonthly to keep connected—the voluntary agencies and faith groups provide recovery for those who did not qualify for government aid or insurance.

George said FEMA volunteer agency liaisons are often people from the faith community, because they help the government understand how the faith community works. From his knowledge of the faith community, he knows which church or faith group provides what service. 

He listed examples of some specialties:

• The United Methodist Committee on Relief specializes in training and paying caseworkers, who learn how to listen to stories and discern projects, how to help people file insurance claims and how to advocate through the state insurance commissioner when claims are denied. 

• The Seventh-Day Adventist Disaster Services’ specialty is donations management, he said. 
• Mennonites and the Christian Reformed World Relief Council provide volunteers with hammers and nails to put up sheetrock and repair homes.

• Lutherans have begun to offer construction teams, along with joining the United Church of Christ, Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Episcopal Church as sources of funding for recovery projects.

• The Church of the Brethren provides child-care workers, helping children respond to a death in the family or a disaster.  For example, George told of going to the Los Angeles Airport with Brethren volunteers in 2000, when a plane crashed in Singapore.  They helped the Red Cross provide spiritual care and childcare.  While adults talked with each other, “child-care workers would sit by a child, engage the child with a stuffed animal and then give the child paper and a crayon.  To help children express their feelings, they invited them to draw a picture and then asked them to describe what was in the picture and how it makes them feel,” he said.

• The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, after 2006 and 2008 floods in Western Washington, provided flood buckets and volunteers to “muck out” 10,000 mud- and water-damaged homes.

• Catholic Charities and the Salvation Army specialize “all the time in working with low-income and disadvantaged people, so they are ready to respond to unmet needs for food and basic needs,” he said.

After three years in disaster ministry, George understands that it is important for everyone who wants to help to work together so they provide the most effective response that restores and improves people’s lives.

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