ERT reeling after disaster trailer stolen

By Jessica Brodie

RIDGEVILLE—Early responders are reeling this month after someone stole their Summerville emergency trailer and most of its $7,000 contents, which are used in the aftermath of hurricanes, tornadoes and other disasters.

Billy Robinson, disaster coordinator for the South Carolina United Methodist Volunteers in Mission’s Early Response Team, said police recovered the ransacked trailer in the woods near a back road on Feb. 5. The front of the trailer was dented, the jack was torn off and it was muddy and dirty, but in otherwise good shape—though missing nearly all of the equipment and supplies they use to begin assessing damage, removing and clearing fallen debris, repairing roofs and much more.

“This is the first time in our 10 years that we’ve had anything stolen like this,” Robinson told the Advocate, noting the trailer had been parked with high-grade locks outside Bethany United Methodist Church, Summerville, when it was taken.

“It’s just sad to think somebody would do this. We feel violated—I mean, really? You’re going to do this? On all four sides there’s a big cross and flame with ‘Christian love in action’ written,” Robinson said, shaking his head. “It really knocked the wind out of us.”

Thieves took three chainsaws, a big generator, an air compressor, power tools, tarps, a Shop-Vac, lighting, emergency supplies, first aid kits and more. The Colleton County Sheriff’s Office is investigating along with the Summerville Police Department, and Robinson’s team has already provided serial numbers for the equipment to aid in its recovery.

Troy Thomas, lower state ERT coordinator who is also with the local fire department, got the first call about the theft and was the first to see the ransacked trailer.

“Heartbroken is the word I would use—angry for a short while but really just heartbroken, considering all the good that trailer does for our community to help spread the love of Jesus Christ and what He does,” Thomas said about his initial feelings.

But in his grief, his wife turned to Scripture, reminding Thomas that what was meant for evil God will make for good. And that’s what Thomas has seized upon: his faith that somehow, some way, God will make this right.

“I don't wish these people any harm or bad will,” Thomas said. “My prayer has been for them to know the Lord like we know the Lord. For them to do something like this, their life is not exactly perfect … they need help, too. And that’s where I sit now with it. If it would take all that equipment to turn one of their lives around, then that would be the best money ever spent.”

Robinson said the rest of the team is in much the same place, spiritually: “As we were heartbroken and frustrated at first, we prayed for replacement of our equipment. We then learned to also pray for the ones who stole from us while having faith in God to turn such a bad situation into something good.”

The trailer is one of seven strategically placed around South Carolina to be ready in case of disaster. This is the only trailer serving the Lowcountry, Robinson said; the closest trailers if a disaster were to occur are in Manning and North.

The South Carolina UMVIM ERT has helped in disaster relief since it started in Robinson’s backyard in North in fall 2004. The group will mark the 10-year anniversary of its first big response (Hurricane Katrina) this year; they have responded to every hurricane and major tornado in the Southeast for the past 10 years since then.

Robinson said having their one of trailers stolen is heart-wrenching because of what the tools represent.

“It helps people during the worst times of people’s lives—a home’s destroyed, a roof’s destroyed, sometimes loss of life, a tragic event. People say, ‘Where’s God?’ and then here come the trailers with the cross and flames showing up,” Robinson said. “We help them start the healing. These tools allow us the means to show Christ as His hands and feet.”

He said that’s what makes the theft so unconscionable. While he hopes to find a silver lining in this, such as making people aware of the need for disaster response, it’s still tough to understand.

“God is good even when bad stuff happens, but it’s almost like messing up the inside of a church. Man—we’re Christians!” Robinson said.

ERT member Danny Thompson said the trailers are used to help people in difficult times in their lives, and that most of those people would not have been able to afford to hire someone to clean up their property or make repairs to their homes—such as the 62-year-old grandmother in the Upstate who is raising three grandchildren, one of whom requires constant care after a devastating pool accident. The team spent several weeks helping her.

“I wonder if the people that stole the ERT trailer had known the purpose of the trailer, would they have taken it?” he asked.

Thomas said he hopes the news will help bring new awareness about what the ERT does—and how to volunteer.

“A lot of people don't really know what ERT is until an event comes; then we show up and cut the trees off their house,” he said.

“I really think God’s going to do something gigantic with this.”

Robinson said they need to replace the items, but they are pricey: the generator alone costs $1,200, and chainsaws run $600 apiece.

Want to help? If you would like to give to help restock the trailer you can give through your local church or go to the conference online donations page here and use the UMVIM ERT line item and type "trailer" into the corresponding text field.

Want to join the ERT? Volunteers are needed to help the South Carolina UMVIM ERT in disaster response. To join the team, you must be trained. Several trainings are coming up, including one March 7 at St. Paul’s UMC, Ninety Six, and March 20-21 at Advent UMC, Simpsonville. To learn more, call 803-539-8429.

Celebrate 10 years with the ERT: An April 25 ERT celebration is planned at a farm in Chesnee; watch the Advocate for further details.

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