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2011: Tsunami to tornadoes, floods, fires


6:00 A.M. ET Dec.13, 2011

See how United Methodists faced disasters and offered relief.

The tsunami that followed the 9.0-magnitude March 11 earthquake off Japan’s northeastern coast left piles of rubble in Ishinomaki and 10,000 of its residents missing.

Today, Japanese Christians are operating a volunteer center in the fishing port to help the survivors recover their lives.

What many have called Japan’s triple disaster — the effects of the worst-ever earthquake, tsunami waves that easily scaled manmade defenses and unleashed radiation from a damaged nuclear power plant — was just the beginning of a year full of disasters to which United Methodists gave their money, labor and prayers in organized relief efforts.

Drought, combined with political strife, sparked a hunger crisis for some 13 million in the Horn of Africa, while earthquake survivors in Turkey need assistance as winter sets in. Hurricanes, tornados and floods whipped across the United States, setting new records of destruction.

‘Still a very ruined city’

In Japan, the recovery process has been steady but slow. “Ishinomaki is still a very ruined city with heaps of damaged cars, mountains of garbage, trucks carrying loads of debris, and shovel engines removing the rubble,” wrote the Rev. Jeffrey Mensendiek, a United Church of Christ missionary based at the Emmaus Center in nearby Sendai, after a visit in October. “Parts of the city have been cleared, but other areas are just as they were right after the tsunami.”

The United Methodist Church has been working with Japanese church partners and other organizations to assist with earthquake relief and recovery efforts. A May gathering of regional partners in Seoul, South Korea, resulted in the creation of the Japan Ecumenical Disaster Response Office, a consortium led by the National Council of Churches of Japan.

The United Methodist Committee on Relief has raised $11.8 million for Japan relief, including donations from Japanese-American congregations. Grants allotted to date have included a total of $1.35 million to the ecumenical Asian Rural Institute in Tochigi, which sustained extensive earthquake damage.

After a November visit to Japan, Thomas Kemper, top executive of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, said he was impressed by the “creative response to the crisis” through the “Tohoku Help” center established by the Sendai Christian Alliance Disaster Relief Network in November.

Recovery efforts include an interfaith telephone hotline staffed by Buddhist and Christian volunteers and a special program supporting foreigners who live in the affected area but do not receive assistance from the Japanese government. “Tohoku Help is ecumenical in its approach, drawing the best people from all Christian churches and communities in the Sendai region,” he said.

Using connectional resources

The United States was plagued with what seemed to be a continuous round of storms, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes and tropical storms — with a few unexpected earthquakes, wildfires and landslides thrown in — as evidenced by the list of “2011 Federal Disaster Declarations” complied by the Federal Emergency Management Association.

The power of the United Methodist connectional system has helped move the churches and communities affected by these disasters toward recovery.

After dozens of tornadoes caused extensive damage in Alabama on April 27, UMCOR-trained Early Response Teams poured in from all over the United States. Since then, the North Alabama Annual (regional) Conference, which has received a $1 million UMCOR grant, has served as host to hundreds of United Methodist volunteer work teams, providing housing and handling hundreds of recovery cases.

“I could never say enough about the professionalism, the expertise displayed, and the genuine heart for ministry that was exhibited by the teams of Methodist people who wanted to be the hands and feet of Christ to us,” the Rev. Nancy Cole, disaster response coordinator, wrote for the blog of North Alabama Bishop Will Willimon.

Then came the Joplin, Mo., tornado on May 22, now ranked as the seventh deadliest in U.S. history, with a death toll of 157.

Woods Chapel United Methodist Church — 140 miles away in Lee’s Summit, Mo. — has had one or more volunteer teams serving in Joplin every week since the tornado occurred. Missy Nance, now a volunteer coordinator, learned how to install siding and hang Sheetrock so she could help. “If you can’t do it, we teach you,” said Ivan Lindner, a Woods Chapel volunteer.

On June 24, thousands were forced to flee their homes in Minot, N.D., as floodwaters covered the town. Relief efforts by the denomination began immediately, even though some churches — like Faith United Methodist — were flooded as well.

Help has continued to come from around the connection. United Methodists pulled a trailer full of tools and equipment from Indiana to North Dakota to work on waterlogged homes like the one owned by Edward and Becky Ortiz. An Indiana Conference team spent two days on the home, removing air ducts, heaters, tools and a refrigerator from the basement, then dismantling the hardwood floors upstairs.

After Hurricane Irene swamped parts of the New York Conference, the Mississippi Conference acknowledged New York’s five-year commitment to post-Katrina rebuilding with a $50,000 grant for New York’s Hurricane Irene Relief Fund.

“Just as we have been helped by the overflowing generosity of the New York Conference in the recovery from Hurricane Katrina, we want to be engaged with you in this time of need,” wrote Mississippi Bishop Hope Morgan Ward in an Oct. 20 email.

Two trained early responders from the Upper New York Conference, Linda Cooper and her husband, Tom, assisted with Alabama’s tornado cleanup in May. A few months later, they were assisting communities in their own conference affected by flooding from Tropical Storm Lee.

And in early September, when Texas was scorched by uncontrolled wildfires that burned more than 1,500 homes, the responders assisting those affected included UMCOR-trained spiritual and emotional care teams.

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her at http://twitter.com/umcscribe.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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