MDS responding to hurricanes

Early response volunteers at work in NC, assessment teams visiting Florida communities

Early response volunteers have begun clean-up work in Lumberton, North Carolina. MDS begins its hurricane disaster response efforts once emergency response and rescue teams determine an area is safe. Photo credit: MDS

Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) is accepting donations to its fund for 2018 Hurricane recovery which will be applied as needed to the agency’s response to Hurricane Michael and Hurricane Florence. The agency reports that donors have been generous in their response.

There are no Mennonite Brethren congregations in Florida, but USMB does have congregations in North Carolina; they avoided the full fury of Hurricane Florence.

“By the grace of God we were not affected at all by Hurricane Florence,” MB North Carolina District Conference minister Terry Hunt, who is also pastor of The Life Church in Lenoir, N.C., told Mennonite World Review in late September. “All of our churches were spared, and there were no damages at all. I have been in contact with Mennonite Disaster Service, if we can send a few volunteers to help with the cleanup.”

Hurricane Michael assessment teams at work

Two MDS assessment teams began investigating possible work sites Oct. 17 following Hurricane Michael. These assessment teams are based out of Marianna, Florida, on the periphery of the heavily damaged area and will work their way to the coast and hardest hit areas.

The assessment teams will meet with FEMA, local emergency management officials, local community leaders and partner disaster response agencies to determine where MDS is needed and early response teams can be sent in.

MDS early response volunteer teams are on standby, ready to do clean up, muck out, chainsaw work, roof tarping and temporary repairs. MDS has prepared equipment and supplies for the volunteer teams. This includes extra fuel, generators, communication devices, portable office kits and fully stocked tool trailers.

MDS sources in the Florida Panhandle (in areas up to 60 miles inland from Mexico Beach and Panama City), report that the storm moved fast and the results resemble tornado damage. Many trees are down on houses and many are without power. There is a lot of infrastructure damage as well.

Travel in the area is difficult but doable. The main roads are slow, mostly down to one lane. As of now, sources report no other organizations have been seen working in the area.

Because MDS does not do emergency response, the agency waits until it is determined by emergency response/search and rescue teams that it is safe to go into the area.

Hurricane Michael, a Category 4 storm that made landfall in the Florida panhandle Oct. 10, 2018, is the third most powerful storm ever on record to hit the U.S. As of Oct. 18, the hurricane has been responsible for the deaths of 35 people, as the recovery continues. MDS sources report Mexico Beach was hit very hard and Holmes and Jackson Counties and counties to the west have lots of damage.

Hurricane Florence response underway in North Carolina

Meanwhile, early response volunteers are in Lumberton, North Carolina, mucking out homes and cleaning up from Hurricane Florence. A bus load of Amish from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, arrived in Lumberton the morning of October 1. They were the first of a number of early response groups that have, and will continue to, rotate into the Lumberton area over the next couple of weeks.

MDS is staging its response from Chestnut Street United Methodist Church in Lumberton and continues to meet with local officials, FEMA and NOVOAD partners to determine where MDS should respond. Early response team volunteers are doing clean up, muck out, chainsaw work and temporary repairs to homes flooded by rain associated with the hurricane.

Even before Hurricane Florence made landfall on September 14, 2018, in Wilmington, North Carolina, MDS was quietly gearing up a response that will range from damage assessments to long-term home rebuilds. In simpler terms, MDS brings hope to storm survivors who have been through the wringer—a hope reflected in donors and volunteers alike.

Larry Stoner, an MDS regional operations coordinator, started making calls from his home base in Pennsylvania before Florence even hit. He is part of a seasoned MDS team that has, collectively through the organization’s 68 years of existence, honed a response as sophisticated as it is compassionate.

Stoner has contacts in the Federal Emergency Management Agency, in state and national Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster networks and in county emergency management who can tell him what’s happening on the ground.

“My existing contacts are very helpful and valuable at a time like this,” Stoner explains. “It takes many phone calls and an investigation team on the ground to see the damage and identify a site for accommodations for volunteers and jobs for them to do.”

Volunteers who just “show up” after a disaster—with no place to stay, no tools or supplies, and no training—often risk being a burden on the very community they are trying to help. MDS’s trained Early Response Teams (ERTs) are sent only when floodwaters recede and the disaster site is safe for them to muck out houses, tarp roofs and help with cleanup.

Already, assessments indicate long-term recovery in North Carolina will take years. Some forecasters are calling Florence the wettest tropical system to ever hit North Carolina, with some communities reporting nearly three feet of rain. Long after Florence has left the headlines, MDS will be rebuilding homes.

People power MDS

MDS is powered by people—some who donate funds, others who swing a hammer, and, on Sept. 19, 2018, some who volunteered to answer phones at a telethon for MDS in partnership with ABC27, a local Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, news channel.

The telethon raised more than $202,000 with help from private and corporate partners who provided $97,000 in matching funds. Checks were still coming in at the beginning of October.

As volunteer Frances Hillenbrand paused between answering phones, the Lititz resident reflected that a volunteer doesn’t have to be at a disaster site to contribute.

“It’s important for me to be here because I can’t be there,” she says. “I’ve worked in flood-torn area before and I know what that’s like. I know how it paralyzes people. It takes months and years for them to recover. I’m so glad I live so close to MDS so I can give something back.”

MDS Executive Director Kevin King says the telethon was an “amazing feat of team effort” that will not only change the lives of those affected by Hurricane Florence, but the lives of those who volunteered to help. “The whole community was impacted,” he says. “One volunteer on the phone talked with a donor for 30 minutes. That donor just wanted to talk, and she gave $5, and said she wanted to give more.”

MDS has a long history of responding to hurricanes. Volunteers spent seven years rebuilding homes along the Gulf Coast after hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. In 2016, when Hurricane Matthew struck Princeville, North Carolina, and other communities, MDS responded immediately and over the long haul.

Over the years, King says he has come to redefine the word “respond.”

“Often we think of the response in terms of hammer and nails, because MDS rebuilds homes,” King says. “But responding in Christian love is also witnessed in a volunteer at a telethon who takes time to listen to someone they’ve never met. Responding in Christian love is witnessed in an online donation, an IRA gift, a bequest, a check, a dollar or a child walking in here with her piggy bank.”

How can I volunteer?

Right now, MDS is looking for volunteers with these specific skills sets. Persons who:
• Are physically able to lift and carry heavy items
• Have chainsaw skills
• Can operate a skid steer
• Can bring their own chainsaw

Financial donations help MDS clean up, repair and rebuild homes in the hurricane-affected areas. Donations cover the costs of tools, equipment and vehicles and support volunteers with food, accommodations and transportation to the work site. To donate, visit Checks can be sent to: Mennonite Disaster Service, 583 Airport Rd, Lititz, PA 17543

By Susan Kim for MDS


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