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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

June 29, 2020

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)

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

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 this past spring, he was 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.”

Support the work of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance with a gift to the One Great Hour of Sharing Special Offering.

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 to use a variety of tools from cellphones to video conferencing and communication to assess what is happening and develop a response.

In responding to the situation in Cookeville, Rauer said was 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 was, who was involved in recovery efforts, and what was being done. In turn, Rauer was working to orient the church to what long-term recovery involves, what resources are available, and how to plan.

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.

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.

“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.”

 Rich Copley, Communications Strategist, Presbyterian Mission Agency

Today’s Focus:  Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA)

Let us join in prayer for: 

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff

Annette Greer, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Paul Grier, Presbyterian Foundation

Let us pray:

Loving God, guide our paths that no matter where we are, we will seek to follow the paths that Christ would walk, to reach out with Christ’s love in caring for our neighbors. Amen.