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Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and the Presbytery of the Pacific respond to deadly fires on Maui

The Red Cross has asked PDA to be on standby with a team of spiritual care providers

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Two Hawaii Army National Guard CH-47 Chinook perform aerial water bucket drops on the Island of Maui to assist the fight of wildfires, Maui, Hawaii, August 09, 2023. The two air crews performed 58 total bucket drops in five hours in up country Maui totaling over 100,000 gallons dropped on the fires. (U.S. National Guard Video by Air Force Master Sgt. Andrew Jackson)

LOUISVILLE — Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is working with the Presbytery of the Pacific following this week’s fires that killed at least 111 people in Lahaina on the Hawaiian island of Maui and also burned portions of south Maui and the island’s Upcountry region.   Earlier this week fires also burned brush on the Big Island of Hawaii, but those fires have been largely controlled. After seeing the devastation in Lahaina, Hawaii Gov. Josh Green called it “the worst national disaster that Hawaii has ever faced.”

CBS News reported on Sunday that hundreds of people remain unaccounted for. The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s administrator, Deanne Criswell, said that 150 FEMA personnel were on the ground in Maui, with more search and rescue teams on their way.

“It’s clear there will be significant long-term recovery needs,” said the Rev. Jim Kirk, PDA’s Associate for National Response. For the people who want to respond and don’t have the opportunity to provide donations or commodities right away, “there will be opportunities in the months and years ahead. That is hard for people to hear, because everyone wants to do something right now. The best thing to do right now is to wait and respond down the line.”

The Presbytery of the Pacific has submitted an application for an initial assistance grant. In addition to portions of Los Angeles, the state of Hawaii is part of the presbytery.

In a Facebook post, the Presbytery of the Pacific asked for prayers for Presbyterian pastor and minister member the Rev. Dr. Kimberly Fong and for her congregation, Po’okela Church in Makawao, in the north-central portion of the island.

The Rev. Heidi Worthen Gamble, mission catalyst for the Presbytery of the Pacific, said the presbytery heard from Fong over the weekend. Fong reported she is safe and along with her congregation is responding to the needs of neighbors in their community, which is nearly an hour east of Lahaina.

Worthen Gamble said churches and the presbytery have unfortunately had “a lot of climate-produced fires here in California over the last five years. We are familiar with how to partner with PDA to begin to access things and set up a response.”

The Rev. Heidi Worthen Gamble

“We understand our role in the disaster response ecosystem is we are not first responders,” Worthen Gamble said. “At this acute stage, I encourage people to be donating and to be praying. We really do want people to give to PDA to develop capacity.”

The Red Cross has asked PDA to be on standby to provide a team of spiritual care providers who could be embedded with the Red Cross for their ongoing response on Maui. On Friday, PDA was making calls to names on its roster of about a dozen such providers to see who might be available should the need arise. The spiritual care providers will be among the few people authorities are allowing into the Lahaina area. “They have a specific task and they have been invited in,” Kirk said of the spiritual care providers, who are members of PDA’s National Response Team. “In addition to the physical needs, there will also be emotional and spiritual needs. It’s a devastating disaster given the scope of the damage and the number of lives lost.”

On Thursday, Kirk was one of about 140 people affiliated with Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, a group that provides the opportunity for nonprofit organizations, many of them faith-based, to coordinate, communicate, cooperate and collaborate. “The message was clear,” Kirk said of those organizing the call. “People should not deploy unless they have a specific role to play, and they’ve been invited to be engaged.” Authorities are still working to evacuate residents and tourists off the island, he said. “It’s still an active disaster. Search and Rescue is taking place. There are places rescue folks can’t get to yet.”

A disaster on a relatively isolated island like Maui makes transportation and lodging more challenging than it might be on the mainland, Kirk noted. “On an island, where can you go? There are a lot of logistical challenges. It’s an unfolding disaster,” he said, “and it’s important to let those with a specific role to play to be able to do that.”

Kirk has read reports of people donating food to Maui shelters. But without refrigerated storage available following the fires, much of the donated food is going to waste, “and it puts more cars on the road in an impacted area,” he said. “Interested volunteers will have opportunities in short-term and long-term recovery. It’ll be important for people interested in helping to think about how they can be helpful once the emergency is over. Certainly, praying for those impacted is important.”

There are no PC(USA) churches on Maui or on the Big Island, and a half-dozen on Hawaii’s most populated island, Oahu. Kirk has been in touch with the pastor serving one of the Oahu churches affiliated with the PC(USA).

Hawaii is home to a larger number of United Church of Christ congregations. Kirk said he’s spoken to his UCC counterpart “to discuss how Presbyterians could be supportive of their efforts.”

The Rev. Dr. Diane Givens Moffett, president and executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, offered this prayer.

In a Thursday letter to churches in the Presbytery of the Pacific, Worthen Gamble reminded Presbyterians “we are a people of prayer. Offering our cries to God is an act of faith. We are not alone and believe in a God who is with us in our suffering.” She suggested people use this list of “Prayers for Times of Trouble and Disaster” developed by the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Office of Theology and Worship.

To make a donation to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance for disaster relief for those affected by wildfires, go here.

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