Volunteers stretched thin after years of hurricanes, wildfires and flooding
by Rick Jones | Presbyterian News Service
LOUISVILLE — Strong hurricanes, record flooding and massive wildfires have taken their toll on volunteer groups aiding in clean up and recovery. Presbyterian Disaster Assistance says that groups have been working hard in recent years to help communities rebuild, but the continuous string of powerful hurricanes and other natural disasters are making it harder to find enough people to meet the need.
“Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma in 2005 really touched people’s hearts and groups and individuals showed up in masses to help. That was 13 years ago,” said Jim Kirk, PDA’s associate for national disaster response. “Over the years, volunteers went back 10 to 15 times to assist with clean up and rebuild and now they’re aging out. Back then, they were in their 60s and had a lot of time and energy and now they’re in their 70s or 80s.”
Kirk said that between 2013–15, there was a drop in the number of volunteers. But in the last two years, there’s been uptick again. Even with the upswing, he said there is still a great need.
“Just in response to the hurricane season of 2017, PDA opened 10 new volunteer host sites including four in Texas, four in Puerto Rico and two in Florida,” he said. “We haven’t seen that many open in a short time since Superstorm Sandy. That’s significant. We are in conversation now to open up an additional half a dozen.”
Kirk said keeping the centers full is challenging. In Florida, fewer centers were opened last year because many were still in operation from Hurricane Matthew in 2016.
“We are still responding to disasters that occurred in the last two or three years. People are still going to North and South Carolina for Hurricane Matthew/flood recover, Gatlinburg, Tennessee following the wildfires two years ago, Florida with Hurricanes Hermine and Matthew damage and Louisiana with horrific flooding in 2016,” said Kirk. “When something new is on the radar, people want to go and it draws volunteers away from established sites.”
Long-term recovery organizations like PDA work with volunteers at every skill level.
“The more skilled the volunteer, the better. In the early stages of disasters, we just need warm bodies with strong backs because there’s a lot of muck and gut which can be done with little supervision,” said Kirk. “But as recovery moves on, the level of skill required increases. We have space for everybody right now.”
PDA is always looking for people with building and construction experience. “Even if only one person in the group has construction experience, it will work. A lot of things can be done with some hands on, on-site supervision,” said Kirk.
In addition to supporting volunteer host sites, PDA also provides grants to churches wishing to host volunteers in the long term. PDA’s National Response Team also specializes in helping establish safe, secure and sustainable host sites.
Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is able to respond quickly to emergencies thanks to gifts to One Great Hour of Sharing.
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