Global Ministries

The United Methodist Church

Connecting the Church in Mission

UMCOR’s US Disaster Response: Until the Last Person is Home

by Susan Kim

By the time Hurricane Sandy made its devastating US landfall in late October 2012, the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) was fully prepared and ready to respond. By Thanksgiving, 1,000 members ofLouise Davis waits for her turn to shop at the West Side Campaign Against Hunger (WSCAH) food pantry at the United Methodist Church of St. Paul & St. Andrew in New York. UMCOR’s well-trained Early Response Team (ERT) were mobilized. These responders were already at work in severely damaged homes on Long Island. They had also handed 4,000 cleaning buckets directly to storm survivors in New Jersey’s hardest-hit coastal towns.

All this took place in only the first month of a response and recovery that is likely to last for the next three years. During that time, UMCOR will accompany Sandy’s survivors every step of the way.

“The connectional United Methodist Church is exceptionally alive in the wake of disasters,” said Tom Hazelwood, UMCOR’s assistant general secretary for US Disaster Response. “Rapid and effective disaster response is a powerful ministry for our church. It begins when disasters strike and it continues for years—until the last person is home.”

Phases of Disaster Response

When a disaster strikes, especially in the United States, UMCOR is ready to provide relief and to aid in recovery. To achieve this readiness, the agency provides training to help United Methodist churches and other organizations prepare for disaster. (See Trained and Ready, below).

During the relief phase of a disaster, UMCOR focuses on reaching survivors with water, food, shelter, and clothing. By working with local partners, UMCOR can provide immediate assistance to people who’ve lost their homes and send shipments of supplies stored at its two large US depots. (See “I Assembled an UMCOR Cleaning Bucket” below.)

Also during the relief period, UMCOR-trained ERT members arrive to prepare damaged property for repair or reconstruction. The goal of these response technicians is to make homes “safe, sanitary, and secure.” In many cases, they clear fallen limbs and trees. For survivors who can’t afford to hire a commercial cleanup crew, this hands-on ministry is a real blessing.

Recovery is the longest phase of disaster response. It can take several years, depending on the disaster’s scope. Recovery can include reconstruction or relocation, livelihood support or new employment, transportation, and—most importantly—the restoration of hope.

UMCOR also provides resources for long-term disaster ministries, including funding, training, mentors, volunteers, and relief supplies. This recovery phase is the main focus of UMCOR’s disaster response work, for UMCOR is often the “last to leave,” continuing to work with survivors as they adapt to their new version of what is normal. “We count on the people in the pews to help disaster survivors feel certain that they haven’t been forgotten,” Hazelwood explained.

Long-Term Recovery

The Rev. Jim Gentry (left), the Rev. David Jones (center) of Hulen United Methodist Church in Oklahoma, and the Rev. Elijah Mitchell (right) discuss construction of the Seashore District Volunteer Center at Heritage United Methodist Church, D’Iberville, Mississippi. Long after a disaster fades from newspaper headlines, long-term recovery quietly continues. It is currently underway in many states, including Kentucky, where tornadoes struck in March 2012, leaving serious consequences.

Nearly a year after twisters devastated several small Kentucky towns, Julie Love, director of connectional ministries for the Kentucky Conference, noted that many survivors still live in inadequate housing. “Homelessness in eastern Kentucky,” she said, “is different from homelessness in a city. We more often see rural families move in with other family members.”

It’s also a constant challenge to keep long-term recovery in the public eye. “Local churches and neighbors who reach out when a disaster strikes are often still reaching out a year later,” Hazelwood observed. “They are vitally important, for disaster survivors need their support.”

UMCOR’s Case Management

Among faith-based disaster response organizations, UMCOR is known for offering a holistic plan for each person’s recovery from disaster—one that addresses the individual’s physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. During the last two decades, UMCOR has honed an underlying philosophy of care that moves disaster survivors beyond file folders and into recovery.

When Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in August 2005, UMCOR led an effort that brought nine faith-based or unaffiliated voluntary agencies into one case management program called Katrina Aid Today. This program, known as KAT, received a $66 million government grant administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). In the months following Katrina, KAT affiliates sometimes found themselves opening 200 new cases in a single day.

In total, KAT helped more than 300,000 Katrina survivors. In addition to the FEMA grant, UMCOR raised nearly $70 million in post-Hurricane Katrina donations, helping hundreds of thousands more. Now, thanks to the training and tools developed during the Katrina response, disaster survivors nationwide receive better case management, said Catherine Earl, UMCOR’s executive secretary for US Disaster Response. “In the years following Hurricane Katrina, we stuck to our resolve to do our job very, very well,”  Earl said. “Our goal is to give a disaster survivor the very best care possible.”

Emergency and Long-Term Grants

UMCOR offers both emergency and long-term grants to help disaster survivors across the United States. Emergency grants of $10,000 are usually offered to annual conferences shortly after a disaster strikes. For example, in July 2012, a wildfire burned nearly one-quarter of the 440,000-acre Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation in southeast Montana. UMCOR issued an emergency grant to the Yellowstone Annual Conference to assist with immediate response. Now, nearly a year later, UMCOR has followed up with additional support.

Grants are also approved for long-term recovery. For example, a $1 million UMCOR grant is helping survivors of Hurricane Irene—which struck in August 2011—on their road to long-term recovery. Hundreds of homes along the North Carolina coastline still await repairs. Irene lingered over the region for nearly 36 hours, damaging and destroying thousands of homes. More than 35,000 people seeking aid for hurricane recovery registered with FEMA.

Case manager Donna Brander works at the Aurora United Methodist Disaster Center. She said that, for the first six months after Hurricane Irene hit, people walked around in shock. “Now, they’re thinking: ‘Is anybody ever going to help us?’” she said. It’s difficult to tell people that they will receive help—but that they have to wait. “We still have 100 homes to fix on the south side of the river,” Brander said. “We haven’t had enough volunteer teams to move repairs along as fast as we’d like.”

Trained and Ready

Pastor Matthew Schaeffer (center) of Bethel United Methodist Church in Staten Island, New York, discusses community needs following Hurricane Sandy with the Revs. Tom Hazelwood (left) of UMCOR and William Shillady, United Methodist City Society.In 2012, UMCOR trained its 10,000th ERT member to move into action immediately after a disaster strikes. Julie Pohl, disaster response coordinator for the Kansas East Conference, has trained dozens of them. “Training and credentialing team members is more important than ever,” Pohl said. “It’s harder and harder for unaffiliated volunteers to find their way into a disaster site.” Once trained, ERT members may be deployed for either a local disaster or one out of state.

UMCOR has also developed a two-day, local-church-readiness, train-the-trainer program called Connecting Neighbors Leadership Training. It was designed to give volunteer trainers the tools and information they need to develop local church disaster-response ministries. According to Heather Klason, disaster response coordinator for the Minnesota Conference, increasing numbers of church members want to enroll in training before a disaster strikes.

Christy Smith, an UMCOR consultant who administers Connecting Neighbors, agreed that more congregations are eager to learn about disaster preparation and response in advance. Many people naturally turn to the church in times of crisis. Church members who are prepared can help to mitigate the emotional and spiritual impact of a disaster, making their church a place of hospitality and sanctuary. “The goal of Connecting Neighbors is to inspire churches to ministry at all levels,” she said. “But you can only respond out of strength. If you’re prepared rather than reeling from the disaster, you’ll be in a better position to reach out and help.”

UMCOR also trains “Care Teams” that offer a listening presence to disaster survivors. Often there is a great need for emotional and spiritual care during long-term recovery, said Mary Hughes Gaudreau, a US Disaster Response consultant for UMCOR. As Gaudreau travels across the country to train Care Teams, she is grateful for the talent and commitment of local volunteers. “I am always touched by the level of gifts people bring to this ministry,” she said, “by their experience, expertise, and compassion. Care Teams offer a listening presence, helping to reduce the terrible aloneness that survivors feel.”

Do This—Not That!

UMCOR seeks to educate people, advising eager volunteers on how best to help after a disaster. Unless you have already been trained and are being deployed by a specific organization, it’s better to wait instead of rushing in. Why? One reason is that disaster-stricken local churches and communities don’t have the capacity to host you. Also, volunteers who travel to a disaster scene too soon may endanger themselves, may crowd already-clogged roadways, and may impede search-and-rescue operations. “I wish people felt more called to enroll in training,” Hazelwood said, “so they can learn when it’s appropriate for them to travel to the scene.”

A popular post-disaster donation is used clothing—commonly known as “the second disaster.” Bundles of old clothes collect on church pews, at curbsides, and in warehouses. Volunteers have to organize the clothes donations and they often have to ship them somewhere else. As a rule, here are the best ways to really help.

Give money. Donating money is the best way to get help quickly into the hands of disaster survivors. Their needs change quickly, and purchasing what they need helps boost local economies that have been devastated.

Assemble or purchase relief supply kits. (See “I Assembled an UMCOR Cleaning Bucket” below.)

Wait to act on your strong urge to volunteer. Mark your calendar and volunteer six months after you first hear about a disaster. By then, the disaster will have faded from the headlines but survivors will still be struggling with long-term recovery.

Get trained and prepared. Learn more about UMCOR’s “Connecting Neighbors,” ERT, or CARE team training. Find an outlet that calls upon your special talents and skills. Then respond as part of a trained team that is ready to provide real help.

Susan Kim is a journalist and a regular UMCOR contributor.


“I Assembled an UMCOR Cleaning Bucket. Where Did It Go?”

UMCOR relief supplies—such as cleaning buckets, health kits, and other aids—are critically important in disaster ministry. Relief supply kits packed by congregations across the nation are delivered directly into the hands of disaster survivors. Though you may not know exactly where your kit ends up, UMCOR responders are often deeply ghmoved when they see a recipient’s reaction.

Catherine Earl, UMCOR’s executive secretary for US Disaster Response, remembers meeting a woman who received a cleaning bucket during the Midwest floods two years ago. “She had always assembled the cleaning buckets and other relief supply kits with her unit of United Methodist Women,” Earl said. Then, suddenly, she was the recipient of a cleaning bucket, and she thought about how it all comes around in a circle of caring.”

UMCOR’s depots need to continually build up their supply of cleaning buckets, said Kathy Kraiza, UMCOR’s executive director of Relief Supplies. “We’ve always got to replenish our supplies to be ready for the next disaster,” she pointed out.

UMCOR runs two supply depots: UMCOR Sager Brown in Baldwin, Louisiana, and UMCOR West in Salt Lake City, Utah. UMCOR also participates in a network of United Methodist relief supply depots across the United States.

The Sager Brown Depot is the headquarters for UMCOR’s relief-supply operations. In 2011, nearly 3,000 volunteers prepared more than $8 million in supplies for shipment from the Baldwin campus. Statistics for 2012 are still being tallied. For instructions on assembling and shipping kits, visit  

Louise Davis waits for her turn to shop at the West Side Campaign Against Hunger (WSCAH) food pantry at the United Methodist Church of St. Paul & St. Andrew in New York. Davis said she lost wages because of disruptions in public transportation following hurricane Sandy. Photo: Mike DuBose/ UMNS

The Rev. Jim Gentry (left), the Rev. David Jones (center) of Hulen United Methodist Church in Oklahoma, and the Rev. Elijah Mitchell (right) discuss construction of the Seashore District Volunteer Center at Heritage United Methodist Church, D’Iberville, Mississippi. The center housed volunteer teams that worked on Hurricane Katrina relief projects. Photo: Mike DuBose/UMNS

Pastor Matthew Schaeffer (center) of Bethel United Methodist Church in Staten Island, New York, discusses community needs following Hurricane Sandy with the Revs. Tom Hazelwood (left) of UMCOR and William Shillady, United Methodist City Society. Photo: Mike DuBose/UMNS