Disaster Response: A year in review

Epworth By The Sea on St. Simons Island was hit hard during Hurricane Matthew, but did not sustain any major damage. Photo courtesy of Brady Shierling.

2017 was an unprecedented year for disasters. More than 25 million Americans - nearly 8 percent of the U.S. population - were affected by what FEMA has called a historic year.

South Georgia wasn’t spared, with deadly tornadoes and straight-line winds hitting the Southwest and South Central Districts; Hurricane Irma striking the coast and continuing through the state; and many residents still dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew from the previous year. The Conference also supported and assisted in the aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey and Maria, sending people, resources, and money to help. 

Even into 2018 South Georgians are feeling the impact of last year’s storms, as families grieve their losses and homeowners and businesses continue to repair and rebuild. United Methodists are stepping in to serve and are often the last ones still in impacted areas when everyone else is gone.

Hurricanes Matthew and Irma

Rev. Stacey Harwell-Dye has served as a case manager in Savannah and Chatham County since last February. A deacon in the South Georgia Conference, Rev. Harwell-Dye has so far helped 12 households restore their homes and lives.

“The job of the case manager is to assist the homeowner in thinking through all that needs to happen to restore life to a new normal after a disaster,” she said. “Case managers look at the whole situation - not just the house, but thinking through the emotional, spiritual, and physical needs of the people we work with.”  

When Hurricane Matthew hit Georgia’s coast in October 2016 it flooded homes, ripped limbs off trees, tore shingles off roofs, and made coastal residents apprehensive and anxious. Hurricane Irma, striking the same area just 11 months later, added to the damage and further heightened fears.

Several of Rev. Harwell-Dye’s clients are disabled and unable to make needed repairs themselves. Many do not have insurance or the financial resources to cover their losses and feel hopeless, alone, and defeated. Rev. Harwell-Dye works with them to find solutions and the resources they need, which often include financial assistance, the help of volunteers, and donations.

Rev. Harwell-Dye will soon expand the conference’s case management ministry to Tybee Island as she assists those who were affected by Hurricane Irma. More than four months after the hurricane battered the small island she will continue the The United Methodist Church’s presence in the community.

“Disasters are overwhelming,” she said. “And when you've exhausted all the resources you know, you can come to a point of despair. To have someone in place in communities that can think through other options with them, represent them to potential sources of assistance, and find volunteers where possible is a point of hope.  Everybody will need help at some point. Case managers provide that help for a time-limited season so that their community can recover, then grow and thrive in the aftermath of a disaster.”

Following Hurricane Irma, six counties along Georgia’s coast, plus Coffee County further inland, received FEMA declarations, and those communities are working diligently to organize Long Term Recovery Groups so they can begin assessments to evaluate the unmet needs.

“The South Georgia Conference Disaster Response Ministry is involved in these communities, providing resources through training and funding for those in partnership with the long term recovery groups,” said Allison Lindsey, Associate Director of Connectional Ministries.

South Georgia Winter Storms

It’s been one year since deadly and destructive storms ripped through southwest and south central Georgia, and blue tarps still cover dozens of storm-damaged roofs. UMCOR-trained case manager Ed Haggerty has worked with Albany Relief and Recovery since April 2017 to help facilitate funding and organize necessary repairs on homes damaged by last year’s winter winds and tornadoes.

A member of Avalon United Methodist Church in Albany, Haggerty is the liaison between the South Georgia Conference’s Disaster Response Ministry and Albany Relief and Recovery, a centralized faith-based organization that’s dedicated to providing coordinated care to individuals and families in need. 

Since last year’s storms, Albany Relief and Recovery has already assisted 792 homeowners and is still working with 80 others. Haggerty says they hope to finish the work on the homes, which mainly consist of roofing repairs and furniture and appliance replacement, by July.

Among his other duties with Albany Relief and Recovery, Haggerty represents the South Georgia Conference’s Disaster Response Ministry/UMCOR by listening to each individual case as it’s presented and giving guidance on funding. If a project is approved for funding he helps guide the process and makes sure the money gets to the right place.

Haggerty has the unique perspective of sitting at the table, hearing people’s needs, and being able to help. When it isn’t appropriate for funding or assistance to flow through Albany Relief and Recovery, Haggerty is often able to facilitate help through other sources like local United Methodist Churches, United Way, the Salvation Army, or local volunteers.

“We’ve been able to get things to people who need them,” he said of his work through The South Georgia Conference and Albany Relief and Recovery. “It’s a matter of knowing what’s out there and being able to provide things. It’s helped us see what other needs are out there. It’s more than just the money. It’s about being able to take care of needs in the community, and about doing the Lord’s work.”

Opening our doors

With two hurricanes less than one year apart, South Georgia United Methodist congregations had ample opportunity to show hospitality to their neighbors, to open their doors as shelters, and  offer refuge to evacuees. Trinity United Methodist Church in Warner Robins, Valdosta First United Methodist Church, Park Ave. United Methodist Church in Valdosta, Lake Park United Methodist Church, Cordele United Methodist Church, and Riverside United Methodist Church in Macon were among many UM churches that extended hospitality to those fleeing Hurricanes Irma and Matthew. 

Trinity UMC, which itself lost power during Hurricane Irma, housed approximately 40 people, two cats, and a rabbit and fed about a dozen more people who were without electricity.

Soldiers with the Georgia Department of Defense’s 5th Brigade called Vineville UMC home for several days last September. The Macon church housed 50 soldiers and 50 State Troopers for five nights as they provided support during Tropical Storm Irma. The congregation fed them three meals and showed hospitality to those who came to serve and protect.

During Hurricane Matthew, Vidalia United Methodist Church and Dublin United Methodist Church both hosted nursing home residents who had to be evacuated from Savannah and Brunswick. Volunteers provided pillows, blankets, and flashlights, and helped feed and comfort the visitors.

In Kathleen, just outside of Macon, Andrew United Methodist Church opened its doors to about 30 evacuees and nearly a dozen pets.

UMCOR in Puerto Rico

Luis Morales has seen firsthand the destruction Hurricane Maria inflicted upon his native Puerto Rico.

Morales, Disaster Coordinator for the South Georgia Conference, returned just over a week ago from his fourth trip to Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria hit the Caribbean island. Since October Morales has served as a consultant for the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) and has helped the Methodist Church of Puerto Rico devise a relief strategy and recovery plan.

To date, more than 11,000 bags of food and 48,960 bottles water have been distributed, helping more than 27,000 people. Five locations serve up to 230 hot meals daily, and more than 25,000 meals have been served. Basic needs are being met by the 32,000 hygiene kits; 3,000 feminine kits; 11,000 school kits; 3,000 mosquito repellents; and hundreds of solar lamps, solar chargers, solar radios, clothes, batteries, and other basic necessities that have been distributed.

“Churches have been the ones reaching the people,” Morales said. “The state agencies and the federal government were slow to start, so the churches have been the key to the relief effort.”

With the generous contributions of South Georgia United Methodists and United Methodists across the connection, UMCOR awarded $5 million to the Methodist Church of Puerto Rico in response to Hurricane Maria.

Read more about Morales’ work in Puerto Rico here.

Throughout the South Georgia Conference, there have been glimpses of ways the Church and its people have been Alive Together in Christ amid the chaos and storms of the past year. From feeding evacuees to providing cleaning buckets and hygiene kits to removing tree limbs and debris from yards to giving more than $500,000 to storm recovery efforts, United Methodists are sharing the love of Christ in meaningful and tangible ways. The congregations of the South Georgia Annual Conference truly are Alive Together!

These are just a sampling of the stories we know need to be told. Have one to share? Email kara@sgaumc.com or kelly@sgaumc.com

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