The long road of rescue, relief and recovery

Published 9:15 am Saturday, September 2, 2017

Andrew Book
A few years ago, my wife and I took a weekend to go through training to be a part of the United Methodist Church’s “Emergency Response Teams.” These teams are part of the relief that is the second tier in responding to a disaster. We learned a lot about the do’s and don’ts of relief work, but what was most profoundly challenging to me was understanding how long and slow the work of recovery is after a major disaster. I want to share a little bit about the process so you can understand the importance of your long-term commitment to the victims of Hurricane Harvey.
The first stage in responding to a disaster is search and rescue. This work is going on now in Houston and other parts of Texas and Louisiana. The aim of rescue work is to remove people from immediate danger and get them to safety. The rescue phase of disaster response is what makes the headlines. It gives us the iconic images we have seen over the last week of neighbors carrying one another to safety, john boats helping the elderly climb from flooded houses, and emergency personnel carrying children through the floodwaters. When we are in rescue mode, the entire country is riveted to the story and asking questions of “how can we help.” The irony is most of us cannot do much to help during the rescue phase, but we can prepare for the next stage.
The second phase in disaster response is commonly called “relief.” Relief work is about providing for the immediate needs of victims of the disaster. Relief involves food, water, temporary shelter, medical treatment, and meeting the other needs of those who have been displaced or injured in the disaster. Many of the victims have lost everything, and during this phase they rely on those of us who are able to stand with them to provide for their needs. The rule-of-thumb is relief work covers 10 times the length of time as the rescue work, so if it takes 10 days to complete the rescue work in Houston, we, the neighbors of those who are hurting, need to be prepared to provide 100 days’ worth of relief supplies. Relief work still makes the papers and news shows, but it is usually no longer front-page news or the lead story. We no longer have dramatic rescue pictures. Instead we have cots, clinics, cold-cut sandwiches, and the challenge of making sure everyone has somewhere to poop (which is one of the biggest challenges when you have a lot of people in a shelter!) During the relief effort, the rest of the country starts to lose interest in the stories and victims because poop isn’t “front page news,” but disaster victims can’t afford for us to quit caring. We are a fickle people, quick to jump to the next sensational story, but the victims need our attention and care more when the headlines fade.
Relief is not the end of the story, though by the time the relief phase is ending the nation’s attention is usually exhausted. Relief needs to move into recovery. Recovery work is all about helping victims to find a new normal where jobs, school, homes and relationships can be restored. Recovery is about rebuilding homes, reopening workplaces, refurbishing schools and reestablishing lives that have been scattered and shattered. The rule-of-thumb for recovery work in the U.S. is to multiply the relief period by 10 again, so 10 days of rescue lead to 100 days of relief and 1,000 days — almost three years — of work to recover a new normal for life. Sometimes insurance helps with recovery work (though standard homeowner’s insurance does NOT cover flood damage), but there are many, many people who have neither the insurance nor the personal financial reserves to rebuild after the kind of damage leveled by Harvey. If we are still paying attention at this point, we will see the huge need. The question is, will we still be paying attention?
I travelled with a work team to New Orleans several years after Hurricane Katrina and was stunned to see entire neighborhoods which had simply been deserted. No one was interested in helping those places recover. The home we worked on that week had an empty lot on one side where a house had been demolished and two neighboring homes which had been gutted but no one had even begun rebuilding. The nation had stopped paying attention. Even today, parts of New Orleans still have not recovered.
Our nation does rescue well. We rally together and support the victims. We are quick to line up to give blood (whether it is needed or not) and profess our support for communities that have been ravished. Unfortunately, our attention span is poor and when our neighbors most need our help, we have often turned our focus to the latest squirrel to catch our eye. Let’s see if we can stay focus on Houston for the next few years and truly help those who are in need!
If you are looking for a way to help, you are invited to join the Courtland UMC community in putting together cleaning buckets, which will be delivered to victims of the storm through the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) as the victims try to move from relief to recovery. Instructions are online here:
You can also give online to UMCOR where 100 percent of your gift goes to relief and recovery efforts (the United Methodist Church covers the overhead making this one of the most effective ways to give money). Give online or find out more about UMCOR’s work at

ANDREW BOOK is the pastor of Courtland United Methodist Church. He can be contacted at 653-2240 or