Ready to respond: S.C. Conference begins comprehensive disaster response plan

By Jessica Connor

The storm does not discriminate—it has no understanding who is rich or poor, man or woman, black or white. Destruction occurs. The total upheaval of life occurs.

And then we pick up the pieces.

With those words, S.C. Conference Disaster Response Coordinator the Rev. George Olive opened a meeting Sept. 26 to help the conference take its first steps toward establishing a comprehensive disaster response plan.

About a dozen people from across the state gathered in the conference center for an all-day meeting to brainstorm and begin initial work to craft the plan so that if a disaster occurs, our conference is able to most efficiently and effectively help those in need.

Olive said South Carolina needs a comprehensive plan because the denomination plays a critical role in disaster relief.

“When the bell goes off we’re on the scene, and the Methodists are the last ones to turn the light out,” Olive said. “If there is a disaster within the state, there needs to be a clear understanding of how all United Methodists within South Carolina can react … and know their efforts – whether time, money or some other form of service – can be focused on the needs of those who have been impacted.”

The S.C. Conference has an extremely strong United Methodist Volunteers in Mission Early Response Team in place already, with a host of trained volunteers who can respond in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. But South Carolina does not have a long-term plan, a “methodology for taking the next step,” Olive said.

Part of that methodology is a plan to receive and manage housing, feeding and work efforts of volunteers from within or outside the conference. Also needed is a more formalized partnership with other disaster response organizations.

The end result should be a seamless, transparent flow of knowing to whom churches can reach out for assistance and guidance after a disaster – and how the conference ultimately will respond, Olive said.

The committee (comprising Olive, 12 district disaster response coordinators, the director of UMVIM and the director of Connectional Ministries) hopes to have a draft of the plan ready by Annual Conference 2013. They will do a three-day training event in February conducted by United Methodist Committee on Relief to learn how to function as a conference disaster response team, plus a workshop to develop framework for the plan. Between now and then, the committee is gathering ideas in preparation for their work.

New S.C. Bishop Jonathan Holston attended the initial meeting and pledged his support in getting South Carolina up to speed.

“We have a yearning to be helpful,” Holston said. “How we coordinate that is important.”

Holston, who was the disaster relief coordinator in the North Georgia Annual Conference, said a lot of people descend on an area after a disaster, and sometimes they can do harm when they mean to do good.

“I want to help our conference be able to respond in a way that is helpful, not hurtful, to a community,” Holston said, recommending training and Red Cross credentialing, among other measures.

“You never know what type of situation may happen,” Holston said, pointing out that a disaster is not just a hurricane, tornado or flood but also a fire or chemical spill. “It’s important to help our churches have a plan.”

The Rev. Richard Lewis, Spartanburg District disaster response coordinator, said that as he became more and more involved in disaster response over the last decade, he began to notice how truly unprepared most people are.

“As I became involved, I kept hearing about Hurricane Hugo and how big of a disaster that was because most people weren’t ready for the devastation that occurred, as the hurricane lingered through the state and up around Charlotte. Then I began to notice on the news every time a tornado hit that the community was not totally prepared,” Lewis said. “The more I learned, the more I began to see that people in general are very laid-back, especially if a disaster has not occurred in their area. The prevailing idea is that something like that won’t happen here. It just happens to other people in other places.”

Disasters involve those not directly hit by hurricanes, tornadoes and other major problems, Lewis noted. During Hurricane Katrina, the Upstate was involved because of the mass evacuations that left people homeless. A plan is critical for the people of this state, he said.

“There is just so much to know and understand,” Lewis said. “We need to know what to do, where to go, who to call, who to report an emergency to, what resources are available that are readily available, where our shelters are located, escape routes in the event of an evacuation. We need to have food and water set aside for at least two to three days for our whole families. Our churches need to know how to best take care of their membe
rs in the event of a disaster in our immediate community. We also need to know what types of disasters our communities should prepare for.”

ERT member Beth Caskey thinks developing a comprehensive conference disaster response plan is a sensible and farsighted move for the conference.

“Have you ever planned for what you would do if your neighborhood was flooded or destroyed? We always seem to have a better way to solve a problem; but these genius plans always come into play after the problem is over and done with,” Caskey said.

Caskey said taking the time to plan for our coordinated response effort now could help us all survive and remain resilient during and following any future disasters.

The Rev. James Lewis Sr., pastor of the Estill-Black Swamp Charge, as well as an emergency services and fire/rescue chaplain, said everyone should have a disaster plan: the conference, churches, even individuals.

“You never know when an emergency will happen,” he said.

Olive echoed their sentiments.

“We want to be prepared,” he said. “We may never have to respond, but we want to be prepared.”

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