All the disaster relief ministry leaders who spoke with me said they have lost volunteers to concerns about the virus. But they all said the greatest question isn’t who will volunteer. It’s how they’ll volunteer.
As lockdowns began, churches shuttered. Fourteen-day quarantine requirements for interstate travel kept relief crews out of places such as California, Texas, and North Carolina. Most quarantine restrictions have lifted, but guidelines limiting how many people can work and stay in an area still hamper volunteer recruitment. Under coronavirus mitigation guidelines, church vans can’t shuttle tightly packed youth groups and adult chaperones into disaster regions where they will bunk in church gyms, work in close quarters, and hold hands to pray with distraught storm victims.
“The numbers are down because we’re unable to house as many people as we normally would. That’s the biggest challenge we’ve had,” said Luther Harrison, director of U.S. disaster relief services for Samaritan’s Purse.
He said the last full-scale deployment of Samaritan’s Purse drew 6,000 volunteers to the Nashville area after tornadoes ripped through on Easter weekend. When similar storms left destruction in Mississippi a week later, new coronavirus mitigation protocols slashed the number of volunteers by half.
The organizations quickly changed procedures to comply with local, state, and federal mandates. Long-established relationships with local authorities and emergency management agencies kept Samaritan’s Purse leaders abreast of changes and able to expedite deployments.
“It’s an amazing logistical dance that, unfortunately, we’ve all become very good at,” said Jarosz.
Like his colleagues, Stacy Lamb admitted he didn’t know what to expect when deploying during a pandemic. He’s the U.S. response director of Disaster Services for Convoy of Hope. His team was operating a massive pop-up food distribution center at Glad Tidings Church in Lake Charles, La. By Sept. 9 volunteers had distributed over 1.5 million pounds of food.
Rolling into Lake Charles on Aug. 28—the day after Hurricane Laura made landfall—Lamb suspected virus concerns, disease mitigation mandates, and a Category 4 storm would limit the number of volunteers.
While the daily numbers did fluctuate dramatically, the demand for service never exceeded the supply of volunteers, said Debora Chilson. She directed volunteer check-in for Convoy of Hope, taking temperatures and delivering the mandatory safety lecture to each new arrival. Observing coronavirus protocols was a standard talking point. But so was avoiding heat exhaustion: Temperatures hovered around 95 degrees. With electricity still out, there was no air conditioning for relief.
Most volunteers at the site recognized the inherent risks in disaster relief work. COVID-19 was just another element to consider.
“There doesn’t seem to be too much concern. They take precautions, but nobody seems afraid of it,” Chilson said.
Many came from Southeast Texas. They wanted to “return the favor” to the Louisianans who came to their aid after Hurricane Harvey, said Lamb.