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When disaster relief workers need reinforcements

The coronavirus pandemic has slashed the number of volunteers for relief groups juggling coast-to-coast disasters

When disaster relief workers need reinforcements

Juan Rojas, a student at Louisiana State University, prays with a Lake Charles resident receiving food assistance from a Convoy of Hope temporary distribution center. (Photo by Bonnie Pritchett)

Ed Greene has a healthy respect for nature and its fury. Two weeks after Hurricane Laura swept through Louisiana, the retired National Park Service ranger wore a yellow shirt typical of Southern Baptist disaster relief volunteers and thumbed through a roster listing 100 homeowners who still needed help. Greene, the deputy state director of New Mexico Baptist Relief, had brought a crew of volunteers and chainsaws to clear downed trees from roads and houses in Vinton and Sulphur, La. 

From a list of almost 500 volunteers, only about 20 had deployed for Hurricane Laura relief—half the number he usually gets. As requests for help continued to come in, Greene wondered if he’d run out of volunteers before he ran out of jobs.

“I think an awful lot of it is the virus,” Greene, 73, said. “We tend to be an older, gray-beard volunteer group, just like most volunteer groups. So that just automatically throws a lot of us into the risk category. That’s just a risk that some people can’t take or are not willing to take.”

Most disaster relief ministries rely heavily on senior adults—retirees with flexible schedules who can deploy to a disaster region with little notice. But those same people are also among those most susceptible to severe coronavirus complications. That’s kept many volunteers in their homes, even in a year with plenty of hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, and windstorms.

“We’re very much like the Southern Baptists and a lot of our other partners,” said Tameka Sharp, head of Emergency Disaster Services for the Salvation Army. About 75 percent of the organization’s volunteers are over 65 years old, she said. Some are opting out of service during the pandemic.

For California Salvation Army leaders, the reduction in volunteers came as a demand for aid was on the rise, said Samantha Jarosz, public relations director for the organization’s Del Oro Division in Sacramento. Since March, volunteers have delivered meals and boxes of food to the newly unemployed. When government guidelines severely limited the number of organizations allowed to provide food assistance, Jarosz said requests to her agency increased 1,100 percent.

Then wildfires erupted.

The Bear Fire in Butte County forced residents to evacuate to hotels in the Sacramento area and gave the Salvation Army more mouths to feed. Volunteers worked longer shifts to make all their rounds but kept up with demand, Jarosz said.

Photo by Bonnie Pritchett

Volunteers with the New Mexico Baptist Disaster Relief chainsaw crew discuss how to take down a tree in Vinton, La. (Photo by Bonnie Pritchett)

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.

Photo by Bonnie Pritchett

Stacy Lamb (Photo by Bonnie Pritchett)

Virus or no virus, volunteers such as David Schuknecht were ready to get out of their houses and into the field.

A veteran of eight Convoy of Hope deployments, the 68-year-old lead volunteer from Iowa worked the car line alongside five university students at Glad Tidings Church. All wore masks as they loaded vehicles with boxes of food and water.

“When we ask God for wisdom, He gives it to us. And we definitely need to be wise at this time,” he said. “But we also need to be proactive, I believe. We’re doers.”

For those who have not served during the 2020 disaster season, Ed Greene said there will always be another opportunity.

He wasn’t wrong. Days later two people died and hundreds of thousands of residents were left without power in Alabama and Florida after Hurricane Sally blew ashore. High winds, rain, and storm surge left boats on land and water in homes. This week, Tropical Storm Beta is drenching the Texas Gulf Coast and threatens to move over parts of Louisiana still recovering from Hurricane Laura.

“One thing we know about this business—it’s a growth industry,” Greene said. “If you are in disaster relief, you will never lack for work.”

Bonnie Pritchett

Bonnie Pritchett

Bonnie is a correspondent for WORLD. She is a graduate of World Journalism Institute and the University of Texas School of Journalism. Bonnie resides with her family in League City, Texas.