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Presbyterians working to help overlooked communities in Laura’s wake

Longtime disaster assistance coordinator says financial and communication help needed

by Rich Copley | Presbyterian News Service

The Dominican Republic experienced widespread flooding and structural damage from what was then Tropical Storm Laura. (Photo courtesy of Saturnino Pérez |Christian Reformed Church in the Dominican Republic)

LEXINGTON, Kentucky — Shortly after Hurricane Katrina dealt a historic blow to New Orleans, Hurricane Rita churned up to Category 5 in the Gulf of Mexico and threatened to deliver a second punch to the Crescent City.

But it weakened and tracked west, making landfall in less-populated Western Louisiana. Katrina resonated for years, but Rita was quickly forgotten, except where it caused catastrophic damage.

“Ever since that, they have felt very forgotten and abandoned,” Christina Drake, Disaster Recovery Coordinator for the Presbytery of South Louisiana, said of the Western Louisiana communities she works with. “The response was so focused on New Orleans and Katrina that they have just not expected anybody to reach out. That’s something … I’ve tried to change. So when there are storms, I always try to reach out to them and let them know we are there for them.”

Christina Drake is Disaster Recovery Coordinator for the Presbytery of South Louisiana.

She is doing that again as another historic storm, Hurricane Laura, delivered the brunt of its damage to Western Louisiana and East Texas. While a lot of attention is being paid to Lake Charles, just north of where Laura made landfall in Cameron Parish, Drake is focused on places such as Elton, De Ridder, Sulphur, and Singer.

“Some of them are really devastated,” Drake said. “I am getting videos in and photos that are heartbreaking.”

Drake’s days working in disaster response go back to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and several programs responding to that and other situations in Louisiana. Through that time, she has gotten to know Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) very well, as well as groups such as Louisiana Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters (VOAD).

CLICK HERE TO SUPPORT PDA’S RESPONSE TO HURRICANE LAURA.

“PDA is always very supportive of us doing what we need to do,” Drake said, noting the national office called to offer support before the storm struck.

So far, PDA has approved initial assistance grants to the Presbytery of South Louisiana and the Presbytery of New Covenant in Texas. Mission Presbytery in Texas will also receive an initial assistance grant to support its efforts in bringing needed and requested equipment and supplies to Northeast Texas and Western Louisiana.  In the Presbytery of South Louisiana, at least four churches sustained damage and several families that are members of churches lost their homes. A church damage grant has already been approved for First Presbyterian Church in Orange, Texas.

The Rev. Jim Kirk and the Rev. Edwin González-Castillo of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance have been working to respond to Laura both in the United States and in the Caribbean, where Tropical Storm Laura skirted Cuba but delivered a direct hit to the island of Hispaniola, killing 31 people in Haiti and four in the Dominican Republic.

The Rev. Edwin González-Castillo oversees Latin America and the Caribbean for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. (Contributed photo)

González-Castillo, PDA Associate for Latin America and the Caribbean, said he is primarily hearing reports of property damage from flooding, falling trees and mudslides. The Dominican Republic faces an additional challenge, he said, as a new government is still unprepared to respond to the many crises occurring in that country.

What little that people had living in the affected regions of the Dominican Republic is now gone or severely damaged following Laura. (Photo courtesy of Saturnino Pérez |Christian Reformed Church in the Dominican Republic)

“Many of the poor communities, both in Dominican Republic and Haiti, are dependent on agriculture,” said González-Castillo, who noted that PDA is working with partner organizations is Haiti and the Dominican Republic. “In the areas affected, what little they had is gone.”

The storm’s reach also extended to East Texas where James Hannan, Disaster Preparation and Recovery Coordinator at Presbytery of New Covenant, said the damage was primarily from wind in less populated communities. As of Tuesday, he said, assessments were still coming in as there were widespread evacuations. Many people are just now returning to their homes.

Some of the more populous cities such as Beaumont, Texas, were largely spared and are acting as staging areas to assist smaller communities. Hannan said a lot of people want to help.

That brings up the common denominator to all disaster response: the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Like in many situations, COVID has made it worse because many people who were already facing difficulties without jobs, without a source of income, now have also lost their houses and the little they had,” González-Castillo said.

Kirk says, “COVID is the thing that impacts everything we do. From shelter, to feeding, to response teams, it makes the typical response more daunting.”

Both Drake and Hannan say that makes following the lead of response coordinators even more important. Some of their suggestions include:

  • Donating money is the most effective way to help, and they both strongly suggested PDA.
  • PDA has suspended in-person response to disasters through the remainder of 2020. If you insist on going individually or as a group, coordinate with people on the ground through presbyteries or VOAD groups. With limited resources in impacted areas, volunteers who want to be part of the solution can easily become part of the problem if they go to areas not prepared to receive them. In response to COVID, a lot of evacuees are being housed in hotels, Drake and Hannan note.
  • If you insist on giving material goods, stick to items on donation lists. Other donations risk becoming trash.

“We know this is what we need,” Hannan said of donation lists. He added that topping the lists in the COVID era are face masks and hand sanitizer.

Drake, in South Louisiana, has a very specific need that can be filled virtually: People who can sort through information such as requests for help and offers to help, and match those up, as well as other communication needs she said have overwhelmed her. People interested in helping can contact her by email at christina@pbysouthla.org or through the Presbytery of South Louisiana Disaster Recovery Facebook page, which also has a lot of up-to-date information.

For people who want to help, both coordinators also agree there is a lot of time ahead.

James Hannan is Disaster Preparation and Recovery Coordinator for the Presbytery of New Covenant.

“This is a marathon, not a sprint,” Hannan says. “There will still be a need in the coming months and years.”

Drake puts a finer point on it, taken from her Katrina experience. She recalls working with some people in 2016 who expressed frustration that recovery from floods was taking several months. She noted that a family she was working with after Katrina had just gotten back in their home.

“That was 11 years later,” she said. “This was an extreme case, but the point is, recovery takes a long time.”

Give to One Great Hour of Sharing to enable Presbyterian Disaster Assistance respond quickly to catastrophic events.


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