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UMCOR assumes major role in Katrina relief, recovery

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A UMNS file photo by Mike DuBose

Volunteers from Christ Church United Methodist in New York repair a roof damaged by winds from Hurricane Katrina in Biloxi, Miss.
Aug. 29, 2006

By Linda Bloom*

NEW YORK (UMNS) — Generous responses by United Methodists to Hurricane Katrina enabled the United Methodist Committee on Relief to assume its largest role ever in a domestic disaster.

UMCOR raised $64.5 million for hurricane relief, causing Newsweek magazine to rank the agency sixth in a survey of “Big Names in Katrina Relief.”

In addition to the amount donated for Katrina relief, United Methodist volunteers put thousands of hours into recovery efforts and donated $7.6 million in relief supplies.

UMCOR now heads a consortium with nine other organizations, called “Katrina Aid Today,” which received a $66 million grant through the Federal Emergency Management Association and Department of Homeland Security. The grant consists of international donations that were received after the hurricane.

From the start, UMCOR disaster response consultants provided training and assistance to help conference leaders in Louisiana and Mississippi develop long-term recovery programs. UMCOR also established regional recovery centers.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS file photo by Mike DuBose

Sue Bymul (front) works with other members of her team from Christ Church United Methodist in New York to remove a handrail prior to tearing out the walls in a Biloxi, Miss., home.

The Rev. Tom Hazelwood, UMCOR executive secretary for U.S. disaster response, spent 106 of 153 days in the field from Sept. 1, 2005, to Jan. 31, 2006. In addition, six UMCOR consultants spent a combined total of 375 days in the field. Twelve disaster volunteer mentors worked in Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.

“It’s just important to be present in those conferences,” said Hazelwood, who coordinated Katrina relief work with FEMA staff and other faith groups as well as United Methodists.

While other hurricanes have caused significant damage, the combination of Katrina and Rita left the Gulf Coast in shambles from Mobile, Ala., to Beaumont, Texas. “In terms of geography and the number of people affected, we haven’t had anything like that,” Hazelwood said.

Long-term recovery just beginning

Despite all the work that has occurred since the hurricane struck, the long-term recovery is just beginning, he added. “Programs are just now what I would call stabilized.”

But he believes the relief process, while lengthy, is on target. “I hope that we can keep the attention of our church and volunteers on this for a good while,” he said, noting that the Gulf Coast conferences already have experienced a drop-off in volunteers. “The need for volunteers is going to be great for a number of years.”

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS file photo by Mike DuBose

Jake McGlothin directs the Westbank Station of the Louisiana United Methodist Storm Recovery Center.

The Rev. Paul Dirdak, UMCOR chief executive, said the request for the agency to manage Katrina Aid Today stems from its long-time relationship with FEMA and experience gained from its large, church-funded case management program assisting families and individuals affected by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Partners in Katrina Aid Today are Catholic Charities, the Salvation Army, Lutheran Disaster Response, Episcopal Relief and Development, Volunteers of America, Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Boat People SOS, National Disability Rights Network and Odyssey House of Louisiana.

The organization now operates from 131 offices in 32 states, with about 2,200 case managers, both paid and volunteer staff; 21,000 families have received assistance.

Warren Harrity, who opened UMCOR operations in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2003, is executive director of Katrina Aid Today. He pointed out that case management of this scope and scale had never been in place before Katrina.

“Getting this huge system up and running has been a tremendous effort,” he told United Methodist News Service. The biggest task was to bring nine very different agencies under one umbrella “to work in a coordinated, collaborative standardized effort.”

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose

Mark Prince of Toms Brook (Va.) United Methodist Church makes repairs at the home of Barry Smith in Clermont Harbor, Miss.

A two-day training module used UMCOR principles and standards and utilized the Coordinated Assistance Network, a Web-based data base that allows agencies to access case files. One hundred case managers came to the first training last Jan. 5; since then, more than 20 other training sessions have occurred, according to Harrity. Training also has been taken to the locations of 1,200 case managers.

In each state, the Katrina Aid Today agencies meet weekly or biweekly “to discuss issues pertaining to the storm-affected population,” he said. Even nationally, the coordination is seamless enough to allow a Katrina evacuee to receive services from Catholic Charities in Spokane, Wash., and then move back to Louisiana and continue to receive assistance through Lutheran Social Services of the South.

“One of the great achievements of this program has been the coordination and collaboration across agency lines,” Harrity added.

The story of Mr. H

An example of a Katrina Aid Today success story is “Mr. H,” who relocated to Colorado after his rental apartment in New Orleans was destroyed.

Because he had no income or benefits, the Volunteers of America in Colorado provided housing at an apartment complex and helped him obtain identification and sign up for food stamps and the Colorado Indigent Care Program.

The apartment complex manager convinced her church to donate all the furniture needed for Mr. H’s apartment. A Volunteers of America Colorado Katrina Services case manager helped him verify his pre-disaster address to get rental assistance from FEMA and assisted with other local services.

She also discovered that he had numerous disabilities and helped him reactivate the SSI benefits he had been receiving in Louisiana, along with Medicaid benefits. By applying for personal property funds from FEMA, he received a check for about $13,000.

Despite a slower-than-anticipated start in the first quarter, Katrina Aid Today “is really a first of its kind,” according to Harrity. Efforts are “done in a way that is a credit to all the agencies that have participated in the program so far,” he said.

At this point, the organization is funded by FEMA through October 2007. But Harrity believes recovery could take six to 10 years, so Katrina Aid Today convened an executive-level meeting with all partners in early August in New Orleans “and discussed how we might collectively seek to appeal for more funds elsewhere as time moves on.”

Harrity said he is encouraged by the fact that current congressional legislation to amend the Stafford Act, which deals with federal disaster relief, includes case management funding for the first time. He considers inclusion in such legislation to be “a very important outcome of this program.”

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or

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