By Billy Robinson
On Friday morning, Oct. 2, as rain began, I was still filling sandbags and placing them at every door around my home in North, as only two years prior our home flooded from what they called a “100-year flood” for our area.
Since then, the Department of Transportation had cleaned out some main drainage pipes that were halfway filled with dirt and roots. We hoped that would help immensely, but with the dreaded forecast for unprecedented flooding all across South Carolina, I continued to sandbag my home.
As the South Carolina United Methodist Volunteers in Mission Early Response Team coordinator, I had sent out preparation warnings to all of our volunteers, all the while hoping and praying the disastrous forecast would be wrong. As Saturday rolled into Sunday, reality set in as we began to realize that the horrible forecasts were dead-on for what some would call a 1,000-year flood.
ERTs and individual members sprang into action starting Monday, Oct. 5, as the rain was still falling, helping out in their local communities. Evacuations and a massive amount of road closers, broken dams, washed-out roads and questionable bridges extremely hampered our responses for two weeks, but we responded in massive force along with many other faith-based organizations from all over the country to every accessible disaster area. Waters did not recede in some areas for three to four weeks because of the very unusual rain pattern, rising rivers that caused what seemed like biblical flooding as you neared the coast, low-lying areas, etc., making the situation very frustrating and more hazardous for responders and homeowners.
On Saturday, Oct. 10, another torrential rain dumped 3.5 inches of rain on a lot of the state, including my hometown of North, and it turned already rain-soaked ground into rivers flooding several homes and businesses—and part of mine, from which I had just taken the sandbags up. A microburst toppled over 40 huge trees in North, some of which fell on homes and vehicles. ERTs brought out chainsaws to clear egress routes and tarped damaged roofs, plus preformed muck-out in North, as well as across the state.
Our ERTs were used to responding to small to moderate tornado events in South Carolina and were very familiar with responses to large-scale events, such as massive tornado outbreaks and hurricanes in other states. But this time it was us that were the victims/survivors.
We made the call early on for help from UMVIM ERTs from Georgia and North Carolina. As the knowledge of more widespread damage became apparent and our South Carolina ERTs were growing weary from more than two weeks of continuous response, getting ust four to six hours of sleep each night, we called out to the entire Southeast for aid. On the third week we started receiving teams from throughout the Southeast, plus some from farther away.
Our South Carolina United Methodist Disaster Response Committee, under the direction of the Rev. Gregg Varner, held daily conference calls with our district disaster coordinators, who would relay damage assessments and known areas of need to which we would send our ERTs, plus coordinate the various needs such as water, flood buckets and health kits. Our entire conference staff and disaster structure —especially including the district disaster coordinators—were vital to our response, and many took time off from jobs and family to perform their assessments, coordination and duties. Several, such as Nathan Welch and Danny Thompson, helped coordinate in other areas, since theirs did not sustain much damage.
Good cooperation and communication was established from Bishop Jonathan Holston to Connectional Ministries Director the Rev. Kathy James to the district supervisors to the local pastors. Communication from local pastors to the district disaster coordinators and DSs is an area we will need to focus on in the future, as well as good damage assessments for the relief/ERT phase and for the recovery/rebuild phase.
In all of the severe damage areas, there was a good coordinated effort among all faith-based organizations, Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster, county, state and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. We worked very closely with the Salvation Army, Red Cross, Southern Baptists, Mennonites, Presbyterians, Samaritan’s Purse and others to share resources and a list of needs to make sure no one fell through the cracks and to make sure we had good cooperation, communication, coordination and collaboration (which are the VOAD “4Cs”).
As the exhausting days turned into weeks and then into a month, we became extremely exhausted and somewhat overwhelmed. Some of our people, such as the Rev. George Olive and the Rev. Ken Phelps, had taken very few days off. Others, like Troy Thomas of Summerville who is the Lowcountry ERT leader, had been in the thick of things since day one, plus continued to work their regular jobs, since ERT is all-volunteer and they still have to make a living for their families. Our members were taking time off work to do ERT work and using the days they worked their regular jobs as their days of “rest,” while making phone calls as possible to coordinate things while at work.
As soon as they got off work, they were right back into mucking out a home, putting a tarp on a damaged roof or doing some other form of ERT work, including assessments on damaged homes, coordinating teams and workloads and communicating with various organizations and agencies. Then they were responding to phone calls, text messages and emails until the late night hours, only to get up early after thee to five hours of rest and start all over again.
Everyone was encouraging each other to take a couple of days off and look out for themselves. I could easily read the obvious signs of fatigue and stress on their faces as I would visit each of the leaders in the field while bringing them supplies and talking over issues and needs. I would once again encourage them to take a day and rest, though I knew they were seasoned veterans and many, like myself, were also in the emergency services field for careers. They knew what it was like to endure and push forth with a God-given strength and ability like no other.
Two biblical quotes that inspired us through were, “I pray that out of His glorious riches He may strengthen you with power through His Spirit in your inner being” (Ephesians 3:16) and “I can do all things through Christ, whom strengthens me!” (Philippians 4:13).
After a month and a half, the majority of our requests have become deferred maintenance issues where an old roof that needed repair before the torrential rains is now leaking more and may also have some mold issues. We are helping with the major needs, but many will go over into the recovery/rebuild phase, which our conference is listing for future work teams through our hotline number 800-390-4911.
We are also hoping that some churches can adopt some of these rebuild projects or help, as with “Warming Projects.”
On Nov. 21, we plan to consider the relief/ERT phase complete and the recovery/rebuild phase beginning through most of the state, although there will still be some ERT work performed for another month or so. And in some areas, rebuild began the week of Nov. 9. The ERT phase will continue in the Andrews/Georgetown area through at least the first part of December, with possibly some rebuild starting in areas that have dried out and are ready.
A word of caution on all rebuild projects: make sure the structure is completely dry and sprayed for mold before beginning any rebuild.
A very big and warm “thank you” goes to all our many wonderful ERT volunteers from South Carolina and across the country that responded so wonderfully as “God’s hands and feet” to so many hurting people.
United Methodist volunteers have contributed more than 12,000 hours of service helping others in need.
Robinson is the South Carolina United Methodist Volunteers in Mission Early Response Team coordinator.
By Billy Robinson