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Work begins on S.C. disaster response plan

By Jessica Connor

If a hurricane, tornado, nuclear explosion or terrorist attack were to strike South Carolina tomorrow, how would The United Methodist Church respond?

Disaster response team members are fleshing out just that as they draft a comprehensive plan for the S.C. Conference that will help the church respond with well-trained, well-prepared and well-equipped volunteers who can be as helpful as possible no matter the situation at hand.

S.C. Conference Disaster Response Coordinator the Rev. George Olive and other members of the conference disaster response committee met for a three-day intensive training Feb. 28-March 2. They met to fully understand basic disaster ministry and then set the foundation to write a new and updated disaster response plan. Olive and a small writing team began their first efforts at writing the plan March 19, and they hope to have a final draft for acceptance at Annual Conference 2013, set for June 9-12 in Florence.

My goal is to have every local church in the annual conference trained, prepared and equipped to respond to a disaster, whether a simple house fire in their neighborhood or a major disaster that affects a large portion of the conference,  Olive said.

To do that, first we need to have a total conference construct in place, which should make South Carolina capable and effective in case of a disaster.

Every other conference in the Southeastern Jurisdiction has had at least one disaster (recently) except South Carolina,  Olive said. We ve been fortunate, but the downside is we haven t put the focus on being ready and prepared. 

During the three-day intensive, disaster response committee members got their version of what Olive dubbed Basic Disaster Ministry 101  from Larry Howell, facilitator with the United Methodist Committee of Relief. UMCOR is the UMC s official national and international relief arm, and Olive is the UMCOR representative for S.C.

After the committee got up to speed, they were ready to explore first steps toward the development of a new, significantly updated conference plan.

The last plan we had in South Carolina was written in the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo, which occurred in 1989,  Olive said.

While that plan was fine for its time, much has changed since then, and we need a new plan to reflect all of that, Olive said.

Recipe for a good plan

A strong plan should include a means for addressing all kinds of disasters, not just hurricanes or tornadoes, but also chemical spills, terrorist attacks and earthquakes. Olive said earthen concrete dams have the potential to break down and cause massive flooding, and a nuclear disaster is also a possibility (he noted South Carolina leads the country in deriving 50 percent of its electrical power from nuclear reactors).

The plan also needs to include how to provide spiritual and other support for victims, as well as detail how to interface with the rest of the disaster response network. Not only are there the Federal Emergency Management Agency and a S.C. Emergency Management Director at the state level and in every county, but also there are state, regional and national branches of VOAD (Volunteers Organizations Active in Disaster), which are populated by faith-based and other groups like the UMC. Understanding their roles and how the S.C. Conference can work with them means our volunteers can be organized and helpful and not just rush in and be disruptive, albeit with good intentions.

S.C. Bishop Jonathan Holston, formerly the disaster relief coordinator when he served in the North Georgia Annual Conference, also attended the meeting.

I am grateful to Rev. George Olive and those who are giving leadership in our disaster response ministry,  Holston said. This ministry of Christian action and presence is vital to responding to those in need at the most devastating times of their lives. 

The Rev. Kathy James, director of Connectional Ministries, said that while the conference has dedicated and well-trained Emergency Response Teams and United Methodist Volunteers in Mission recovery teams who serve throughout the connection, a comprehensive conference plan will help everyone understand the lines of response and communication that will be in place if we are faced with a disaster in South Carolina.

The training UMCOR provided helps us to identify what we already have in place and where there are gaps in our preparedness that we can address before we are in the midst of a disaster,  James said.

Conference Treasurer Tony Prestipino said a comprehensive plan would also enable the conference itself to remain up and running in a disaster, accounting things like data storage, for instance.

If we re not able to operate, then how are we able to respond to help others?  Prestipino said, noting any organization needs to have a disaster response plan, especially one as unique in its charge as the UMC.

On the horizon: district and local church plans<
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Olive said he intends the disaster response plan to be a fluid and evolving document, one that is reviewed regularly and modified with the times.

He also said it is merely the first step in conference-wide disaster preparedness. Next on the horizon is encouraging districts to draft their own plans, and then having districts identify a few people who can become trainers to help local churches develop plans of their own.

The Rev. Paul Wood, who also was part of the meeting, said the conference must develop and approve a plan as quickly as possible, as we never know when a colossal disaster could hit South Carolina.

But our plan also needs to be comprehensive and to be interpreted widely throughout the districts for it to be effective. So there is some tension in my mind between haste and ˜doing it right,  said Wood, who pastors First UMC, Cheraw, and is the Hartsville District Disaster Response Coordinator.

Wood said he thinks it is wise to form district committees and hold training events, which will enable our connectional system to respond quickly on a local level. He also thinks every congregation needs a well-thought-out disaster response plan and a disaster response coordinator.

A grease fire in the church kitchen is a disaster; a tornado which levels an entire town is a disaster,  Wood said. We are called by God to respond effectively to all sizes of disaster “ to be good stewards of the property we own and good care-givers to those who are victims. 

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