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How does PDA respond to a disaster during a pandemic?


With travel and contact restricted, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance turns to virtual response to disasters, COVID-19

by Rich Copley | Presbyterian News Service

Traditional Presbyterian Disaster Assistance responses, such as this one made by National Response Team member Liz Branch following tornadoes in Texas a few years ago, aren’t possible during this period of social distancing and travel restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic. (Contributed photo)

LEXINGTON, Kentucky — Somewhat submerged in the barrage of headlines about COVID-19 is news that Mother Nature is still doing her thing.

Middle Tennessee is reeling from a severe storm outbreak at the beginning of this month, an earthquake struck Utah last Wednesday, and spring springing usually comes with tornadoes and harrowing storms, including ones that hit the Southeast Tuesday.

As always, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) plans to respond to calls for help, though in a somewhat altered way, given the limitations of a churchwide domestic travel ban and social distancing necessary to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

“Disasters aren’t stopping just because we can’t travel,” says David Rauer, a New Jersey-based National Response Team volunteer for PDA.

As a National Response Team member, Rauer regularly travels to places where disasters strike and helps coordinate a response with local Presbyterian leaders. His deployments can last from days to months.

But the last couple weeks, he has been virtually deployed to Cookeville, Tennessee, which was hit hard by severe storms March 2, while staying in his New Jersey home.

“Although it doesn’t happen frequently, PDA has engaged in virtual deployments,” said the Rev. Jim Kirk, Associate for Disaster Response (U.S.). “When the people we needed were not available to travel, we would have to find other ways to respond, sometimes in consulting with leadership in discerning response.”

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But for the foreseeable future, PDA will have to respond to ongoing and new situations from afar. One of the main things this model has going for it is modern communications technology, allowing response team members such as Rauer to use a variety of tools from cell phones to video conferencing and communication to assess what is happening and develop a response.

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance National Response Team member David Rauer is now virtually deployed to Middle Tennessee. (Contributed photo)

In responding to the situation in Cookeville, Rauer said he has been in regular contact with First Presbyterian Church in Cookeville — which has a very active Facebook presence relaying information on storm efforts and COVID-19 — learning what the situation is, who is involved in recovery efforts, and what is being done. In turn, Rauer is working to orient the church to what long-term recovery involves, what resources are available, and how to plan.

Working from home, he said, there is more assembling lists of resources and even an instructive PowerPoint presentation than the meeting of people and relationship-building that occurs during live deployments.

“So much takes place within relationships — being in the room with others and getting an understanding of what’s going on, knowing what the situation is,” Rauer said. “This situation now takes away the personal touch, but we try to do the best we can.”

As new situations unfold, Kirk says PDA will respond to requests for assistance in a similar way to what Rauer is doing in the Presbytery of Middle Tennessee.

Restrictions of movement and contact also impact ongoing PDA responses and training.

Kathy Riley, PDA Associate for Emotional and Spiritual Care, was planning to conduct resilience trainings in several places, including Puerto Rico, before the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in the United States. Now, she is looking at taking that training online in the form of a webinar, as well as fielding requests from agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency for resilience training webinars directly related to COVID-19.

“When we’re face to face, there’s a lot of time for sharing stories and tips,” Riley said of in-person resilience training, which helps people navigate the mental health challenges of going through and responding to a disaster.

The training, Riley said, helps people understand the signs of stress and the keys to building resilience. In the coming weeks, PDA is planning to offer a version of its resilience training in a webinar for anyone interested.

“The preference is to offer it to groups live,” Riley said, noting that the subjects of resilience and mental health lend themselves to the interaction of the webinar format. “But we will also make it available as a recording.”

A pandemic asks for a different kind of resilience than most natural or human-made disasters, Riley said.

“There’s usually a beginning and end, and you walk around knowing what’s happened and that it’s over,” Riley said of the disasters PDA typically responds to. “With this, we don’t know what we’re dealing with, what the scope is, and how long it will last.”

PDA is working on an overall response to COVID-19, and information about that response will be forthcoming.

Meanwhile, spring is here, in all its beauty and danger.

“In ministry, I think presence is crucial,” Kirk said. “People may say, we can save so much money by just doing virtual deployments. While this is true, there is an amazing value added when we (literally) stand with those impacted by a disaster.”

“But I do think that, for instance, in Middle Tennessee Presbytery, with both the presbytery staff and the pastor that David’s working with, there’s a lot of grace, and they understand why we’re not on the ground. There’s that period of grace, where we can do some very good work. While we will gain valuable wisdom in alternate ways of responding, I don’t see it as a template moving forward, again, because of the importance of this ministry being incarnational.”

Rauer said, “I’m looking forward to somewhere down the road, when travel is allowed again. This situation will pass, but our work is never done.”

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Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is one of the Compassion, Peace & Justice ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

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