by Glenn Maddox
Hurricane Ian devastated entire communities in and around Fort Myers, Florida, and the first wave of volunteers and news reporters have packed up and gone home. Impact Disaster Response has recently begun a partnership there to start the long process of rebuilding.
When Ian was approaching landfall, Baptist disaster response teams across the southeast were prepared to respond, and with few other active responses, they responded in force. With Virginia in Ian’s projected path, the Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM) placed our teams on alert for multiple anticipated responses across the state. So as the storm passed, and we knew that Ian’s impact in Virginia was limited to small, local responses, we turned our attention to Florida. But with so many volunteers responding, Baptist disaster response in Florida was running at the limits of its capacity.
We began preparing teams to respond alongside North Carolina Baptists, focusing on a second wave of volunteers for the continued response. That’s when we connected with Grace Church – a historically Methodist multi-site church in Fort Myers and Cape Coral. Grace Church is actively involved in Fresh Expressions, with several dinner churches in the neighborhoods hardest hit by the storm. They were running a distribution center and sending teams out to help clean homes. They had scores of volunteers ready to serve – what they wanted from us was training in how to run a response.
So instead of sending big teams from Virginia to do the work in Florida, we met the need they identified themselves and sent a team of leaders who could train their volunteers to run the response. They trained volunteers in how to clean a home safely and then took them out to practice what they had learned. For the first time, our biggest cleanup training of the year happened outside of Virginia. That initial training has progressed to a full partnership that will see Impact Disaster Response volunteers training volunteers from Grace church to manage all aspects of the response and train all volunteers that serve in their community.
One thing that distinguishes disaster response in Virginia from many other places is our commitment to the long-term. We have sustained year-long responses in Texas, North Carolina, and southwest Virginia, with our volunteers going to serve and support the response. But that model is changing again, as we are supporting a response that will engage significantly more volunteers from places other than Virginia. Instead of simply responding as volunteers ourselves, we are training a whole new team of volunteers who can serve in their communities and will be ready to serve and “return the favor” when the next storm hits.
If you talk to a veteran disaster response volunteer about how they got started, you’re likely to hear about Katrina or 9/11 and how they went as an individual and served alongside other people they had never met on a Virginia site during that response. It was “summer camp for adults,” and that was part of the appeal. If they were trained before they went to serve, they were trained at a regional event with dozens of churches represented. But the way people can respond has changed, and new volunteers are receiving training at their church, deploying with a team from their church, and often responding much closer to home. The skills and experiences of those who responded to 9/11 and Katrina are our richest resource as we train churches and individuals (increasingly not in Virginia) to respond when a disaster strikes in their community.
Disaster response will continue to send people who want to serve to communities hardest hit by storms, but we will also go with an eye toward partnership. When churches love their community and want to serve it better, we will walk alongside them and help them love their communities more deeply when those communities need them most. That’s the future of disaster response and the future of Impact Missions, and we’re thrilled God has called us to that work.