United Methodist teams still working hard to help families in need
By Jessica Brodie
It’s been one year since devastating floodwaters ravaged much of South Carolina, claiming 19 lives, breaching dams, closing roadways and displacing thousands of families.
The United Methodist Church has been there through it all, being God’s hands and feet as they have helped countless people get their homes and lives back.
But a year later, much work remains. The recovery effort will take at least another two years, disaster response leaders say. Volunteers, funds and prayer are needed just as much now as they were last fall.
“Today we’re still working through an extensive list of families who still need help getting back to normal, many who are still not living in their homes, some with relatives, others in hotels and other short-term housing,” said Matt Brodie, disaster response coordinator for the South Carolina Conference of the UMC. “The need is still really great, and while it’s not necessarily headline news anymore, United Methodists are known for staying until the job is done, and we have set up our structure and our resources in order to meet the needs as best we can.”
The hurricane-fueled storm Oct. 3-4, 2015, left a massive portion of the state underwater, with parts of the Lowcountry getting more than two feet of rainwater and Columbia as much as 16 inches. Many homes and churches from Summerton, Lake City, Kingstree, Andrews and Georgetown were devastated. Ponds overflowed and major rivers crested. Hundreds of roads, bridges and huge sections of interstates closed, including a 70-mile stretch of I-95. Thousands were without water for days, and many residents saw curfews, evacuations and boil-water advisories—and a firm directive to stay home and stay safe, as President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency in South Carolina.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley called it a thousand-year flood, referring to there being a one-in-1,000 chance of this happening in a given year.
During and after the storm, the UMC was there to help. Many local churches served as community shelters and supply drop-off sites. South Carolina United Methodist Volunteers in Mission Early Response Teams, led by Billy Robinson, began what turned into almost nonstop work for three full months, mucking out homes and churches, tarping roofs, doing mold removal and assessing the overall damage. Some UMCs were severely damaged from the flood, including Canaan UMC, Ridgeville, which lost its sanctuary entirely.
“It was really hectic and stressful,” Robinson said about the early phase. “With my profession and volunteering as a paramedic and rescue technician, I’ve done a lot of stressful events, but usually those things last for a day and it’s over. This was just nonstop, and it became very overwhelming. Our phones just constantly rang, and there were constantly decisions to make about where our ERTs would go, and we had teams across the Southeast coming in and we had to coordinate them, provide housing, jobs, secure places.”
And then there was the problem of torrential rains, Robinson said, causing some of the sites to reflood. In many ways, it was chaos.
“But given the magnitude we had, it was a well-done response,” Robinson said. “We’ve just got to remember that we’re there as God’s hands and feet to try to lessen the burden for everyone and show God’s care.”
Brodie said that is exactly what they did.
Many still displaced
After the early response phase, the UMC moved into the relief and recovery phase, deploying UMVIM teams from South Carolina and beyond to rebuild homes and churches. Individual donations from across the nation, as well as sizable grants from One SC and the United Methodist Committee on Relief, enabled the conference to hire a full-time recovery ministries director, Ward Smith, as well as case managers, construction managers and support staff to help coordinate in- and out-of-state UMVIM teams and other volunteer workers. Those funds also helped purchase construction materials for the rebuilds.
Smith said that since the flood, the UMC has completed work on 45 homes, spent $276,743 on repairs and hosted about 171 volunteer work teams, with at least 11 more teams scheduled to come this fall. Smith said there are 127 families in the current caseload, and thousands of families still need assistance. They are hoping more volunteer teams will sign up to come work this October, November and December.
Smith said thinking about the individual in need is what keeps his team going strong.
“We talk about facts and figures, but at the end of the day, it’s really about Mrs. Jones or Mrs. Smith, about trying to get to the personal point of view, this one family,” Smith said. “You can’t think about the thousands of people who need help. It’s just too overwhelming.”
South Carolina hadn’t had a major disaster since Hurricane Hugo, Brodie said, and while the UMC is responding to the flood and making great strides, it has also been an incredible learning experience.
“It has taught us all that preparation for a disaster is just as important as how you respond to the disaster, and that having a plan and having the right resources in place can make a huge difference in the effectiveness of the response,” Brodie said.
Needs are great
Over the past year, the UMC has partnered with other nonprofits and disaster recovery groups such as Race 2 Rebuild, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Red Cross, the United Way and others. United Methodists have been tapped to lead committees for the South Carolina Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster group.
But as other disasters have struck across the nation, many groups have moved on to help elsewhere, or their funding has run out.
Yet there is still so much to do.
“We’re not going anywhere,” Smith said. “But we need to continue to engage the local church and community to respond to the disaster, to needs that are probably way closer than people realize. I don’t think we grasp how close it is.”
He said he overheard in the hardware store someone lamenting about the hardship of flood victims several counties over, and he turned to the person and said, “Ma’am, it’s closer than you think. There are homes you can probably see from here that were damaged by the flooding rains.”
“The two issues we face now are the tendency to distance ourselves emotionally and physically from the disaster, and the tendency to think that, now that it’s been a year, it’s over,” Smith said.
Indeed, it is far from over. Brodie and Smith said the conference still very much needs churches and individuals to continue to step up and help with disaster response.
Current needs include:
- Volunteers to work on houses (email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 803-786-9486)
- Donations to purchase materials (www.umcsc.org/screcovery)
- Staff (current needs are a full-time disaster case management supervisor, a seasonal construction coordinator and maybe another case manager)
- Churches to provide housing for out-of-town UMVIM teams (email email@example.com or call 803-786-9486)
- Kits and cleaning buckets assembled both for in-state disasters and for neighbors in need elsewhere (find assembly instructions at www.umcor.org/umcor/relief-supplies)
“It’s all about engaging people and giving people the opportunity to help,” Smith said. “This is it. This is the opportunity to help your neighbor.”
“We have done a lot of good work, but there is still much to do,” he said. “Even though it was a year ago and for most of us, it’s an event in the past and over, it’s not actually over for a lot of people.
“There is still great need, and we are still recovering. It’s a big process.”
To learn more or to help: www.umcsc.org/screcovery.