Fifteen Years of Disaster Response: A Labor of Love
by David Nakhla, OPC Disaster Response Coordinator
Almost from its beginning, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church has been concerned with bringing “a cup of cold water” in the name of Christ to those affected by disasters. Yet most would agree that it was Hurricane Katrina in 2005 that served as the catalyst for our current form of disaster response.
The Lord used the devastation on the Gulf Coast caused by that hurricane to impel the church to action. Initially, that action came through the offering plate as OP churches and individuals gave more than $450,000 for ministry to those suffering in Mississippi and Louisiana, most of whom had no affiliation with the OPC.
Ruling elder David Haney was then called upon to head up the disaster response effort on behalf of the OPC, initially overseen by the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension, later by the Committee on Diaconal Ministries (CDM). He reached out to the Presbyterian Church in America to coordinate with the OPC, visited the disaster sites, organized teams, acquired equipment, and placed ongoing oversight on the ground. In the end, ten teams over ten weeks were organized and sent to bring a special ministry of mercy to those who had lost so much.
Japan Tsunami in 2011
In September 2010, I began work as the OPC’s Disaster Response coordinator. On March 11, 2011, an earthquake, measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale, occurred just off Japan’s coast near Sendai, causing a cataclysmic tsunami that gobbled up Japan’s four-meter-tall protective sea walls, surged inland as far as three miles, and devastated two hundred and fifty miles of Japan’s coastline.
For this particular disaster, establishing lines of communication took the form of encouraging OP missionary Woody Lauer and others to purchase supplies in Tokyo, rent trucks, and drive supplies up to Sendai, amid concerns of radiation breeches at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. These supplies, once delivered to local churches in the Sendai area, became a means of opening hearts and homes to the gospel, serving as that cup of cold water in the name of Christ.
Within the next few years, the OPC sent thirteen teams to Japan. Those teams rebuilt two church buildings, remodeled a building to serve as a disaster response center (eventually named Nozomi [Hope] Center), and joined in the various ministries of Nozomi Center for the benefit of those in and around the town of Yamamoto.
Hurricane Sandy in 2012
In 2012, the northeastern United States was surprised by Hurricane Sandy on the New Jersey shore. The storm surge inundated large portions of New York, including Long Island, where a number of OP families live. The denomination’s response to Sandy forced us to learn how to coordinate a disaster response effort in two presbyteries simultaneously. The complexity of working with two separate regions at the same time made clear the need for an overseer on the ground in each location, and so the committee adopted the concept of a site coordinator, a major role that has been essential in each disaster response effort since.
Over the next five years, the Lord began to open our eyes to the need for more presbytery involvement in the oversight of disaster response. This was crystalized in my mind when, sitting in my office in Pennsylvania, I received an email asking if the OPC would be responding to the flooding in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I thought to myself, “Who am I, sitting more than one thousand miles away, to decide if this is a disaster we ought to respond to? This really is a question for the Presbytery of the South.” Subsequently, the Disaster Response Subcommittee of the CDM worked on developing an initial structure to give presbyteries increased oversight in those disasters occurring within their bounds.
Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria in 2017
In 2017, over a five-day period, Hurricane Harvey dumped as much as sixty inches of rain on the city of Houston, resulting in historic levels of flooding. All three OP congregations in the Houston area were significantly impacted. While I was on the ground in Houston, carrying out my initial assessment just days after the rain had stopped, I heard the news begin to report another hurricane, this one named Irma, building up steam in the Atlantic. Irma proceeded to wind its way up the Florida peninsula, impacting several OP congregations in a second presbytery, the Presbytery of the South. Finally, less than ten days later, Hurricane Maria ravaged the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico, the strongest hurricane to hit the island in eighty years. Members of all three OP congregations in Puerto Rico were affected.
One of the things we learned in the process of the Harvey, Irma, and Maria response efforts was the importance of keeping homeowners in the driver’s seat when it comes to the reconstruction of their homes. We also learned the importance of homeowners knowing early on the extent to which OPC Disaster Response would be able to assist financially. Typically, Disaster Response assists in covering the cost of building materials lost to the disaster, as well as supplying volunteer labor, both of which are limited by the number of volunteers and the amount donated for the disaster.
Following Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, the Lord taught us the importance of the ministry of presence. The plea from one of the pastors in Puerto Rico following Maria was, “Please don’t forget us!” In this, we were reminded of the important emotional and spiritual blessing of sending teams of individuals who bring a taste of the communion of the saints as we share in one another’s suffering, as one body of Christ.
At this time, we also adopted the practice of establishing a disaster oversight committee particular to each disaster. The disaster oversight committee ideally includes members and deacons from the affected church, representatives from the presbytery diaconal committee, and a member of the CDM. The disaster oversight committee serves to approve the disbursement of disaster funds (which will typically come as a recommendation of the site coordinator), advise coordinators in their roles, and facilitate promotion of the disaster response effort so as to keep the denomination as a whole informed on the progress of the work.
Site, Volunteer, and Hospitality Coordinators
In response to these natural disasters, we learned that the roles of site, volunteer, and hospitality coordinators were essential in organizing relief. The site coordinator focuses on overseeing the projects that are needed to help affected homeowners. The volunteer coordinator serves as the point of contact for volunteers. Over time, we discovered that, while the site coordinator role had to be filled by someone living locally in the disaster region, the volunteer coordinator role could actually be filled by someone working remotely. In 2020, the volunteer coordinator for the Midland, Michigan, flood response effort lived and worked in Santa Barbara, California, three time zones away!
We also created a third role, the hospitality coordinator. This is often a member of the local congregation whose focus is caring for the volunteers’ meals and lodging once they arrive. This coordinator is in contact with the volunteer coordinator to confirm the needs. The creation of the hospitality coordinator role relieved much work from the site coordinator.
Hurricane Florence in 2018
In 2018, Hurricane Florence ravaged the coast of North Carolina, surging bay water into the historic streets of New Bern and affecting two OP churches. In the midst of this response effort, the Lord introduced us to a member of one of those OP churches who was retired from forty years of working in disaster recovery work. Through his counsel, we learned the importance of properly detoxifying, sanitizing, completely drying, and sealing a home’s structure prior to reconstructing. This process is complex, but if not done exhaustively and in the correct sequence, the good intentions of a quick rebuild can result in a second wave of misery when mold reappears. This is just one example of the many gifted individuals in Christ’s church whose gifts contributed toward the overall effectiveness of disaster response efforts.
The Lord additionally taught us through the Hurricane Florence response the tremendous value and blessing of having an advance team equipped to serve in the immediate aftermath of a hurricane. The diaconal committee of the Presbytery of the Southeast, in coordination with OPC Disaster Response, now has a cadre of men, certified by FEMA, to serve in the early aftermath of a disaster and equipped with a trailer loaded with the proper equipment vital to immediate response, even before roads are cleared and power restored. The Disaster Advance Response Team is yet another means of broadening and strengthening the ministry of OPC Disaster Response, as it seeks to minister mercy in the name of Christ.
In 2019, OPC Disaster Response worked behind the scenes to roll out its first video sharing the impact of the testimony of this ministry following Hurricane Harvey and to encourage future involvement by church members. A registry of volunteers for disaster response was established as a means to clearly identify those with a serious interest in future service in this ministry. That registration portal remains open for all those interested in being the first to hear about opportunities. The registrants periodically receive a newsletter specific to them, the Disaster Response Insider Post (the DRIP). Since fall 2019, nineteen editions of the DRIP have been sent out. To date, the registry consists of 276 volunteers. More are always welcome!
Midland Flood in 2020
On May 19, 2020, due to heavy rains upstream, the Edenville Dam in Beaverton, Michigan, gave way, overfilling the Sanford Lake downstream, and flooding the homes alongside the lake, including the homes of two OP families who are members of Christ Covenant OPC in Midland, Michigan. We were blessed to see members of the presbytery’s diaconal committee arrive within a week of the flood.
The Midland response effort taught us the value of including the Disaster Response’s communications coordinator, Trish Duggan, at disaster oversight committee meetings. Her job has been to hear the volunteer and equipment needs or matters for prayer and to communicate these things to the broader church family for consideration, using our various online outlets: the OPC Disaster Response Facebook page, the OPC Disaster Response website, the S.T.O.R.M. Report e-newsletter, OPC.org articles and news items, Twitter, Instagram, and of course, the DRIP.
OPC Disaster Response is a work in progress, as we continue to learn and grow. The Lord encourages us by introducing more and more of his servants who are eager and willing to serve. We see that his mercies and grace know no bounds.
The author is the Disaster Response Coordinator for the OPC and administrator for the Committee on Diaconal Ministries. New Horizons, April 2021.