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Presbyterian Disaster Assistance prepares Hurricane Harvey response efforts

As the rain continues to pour into Houston and the suffering there and along the Gulf Coast continues to rise, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is getting ready – preparing to help both in the immediate future and the months to come.

PDA has two national response teams (of four people each) ready to go to Texas.

One likely will go Wednesday (Aug. 30) to Mission Presbytery in south Texas. While much of the nation’s attention is focused now on the dramatic flooding and evacuations in Houston, “there was huge windstorm damage in Rockport, Port Aransas, Corpus Christi” and nearby areas, said Laurie Kraus, PDA’s coordinator. “That’s starting to get eclipsed a little” by the Houston flooding, but a response team is going to the Gulf Coast first because the team can get in.

Soldiers with the Texas Army National Guard support relief efforts to residents of Cyprus Creek as they fight back from the effects of Hurricane Harvey. (US Army National Guard photo by: Capt. Martha Nigrelle; Photo from Texas Military Department, CC BY-ND 2.0)

That response team will meet with Mission Presbytery pastors and leadership to assess the damage, provide orientation regarding Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) resources and the PDA disaster response network, and try “to get eyes on the affected pastors, congregations and communities,” Kraus said in an interview with the Outlook on Aug. 29.

Another national response team is ready to go to Presbytery of New Covenant in Houston, but that situation is still unfolding because “nobody can get in,” Kraus said. The team will probably wait until Friday or possibly later, and “they’ll go in as soon as it’s safe.”

The American Red Cross also has asked PDA for assistance in providing spiritual and emotional support to people in Houston displaced by the flooding. So PDA is loaning 12 national response team members who are trained in such work to provide pastoral and emotional care in Red Cross shelters. “They’ll be functioning as Red Cross (representatives) and not PDA,” Kraus said. “It’s really nice the Red Cross trusts the PC(USA) that much.”

Kraus and Jim Kirk, PDA’s associate for national response, may travel to Texas the first week of September if Presbyterians in that area think that would be helpful. “I’m still testing the waters, so to speak,” about what the local infrastructure can bear, Kraus said. “That’s more by nature of a solidarity visit.”

For Presbyterians who want to contribute to the relief effort, PDA is sending notice of a churchwide appeal. People can designate their donation for Disaster Relief–U.S. Hurricane Response, DR000169 (see information below), and ask that their gifts be used for Hurricane Harvey relief.

PDA has sent grant forms to the affected presbyteries – the forms needed to apply for initial emergency grants and church damage grants. In helping congregations, PDA works through the presbyteries, Kraus said – “we don’t jump over the presbytery to get to the congregations.”

As well as addressing immediate needs, “we try to ask congregations and pastors to remember they’re in a long-term process, and to tend to their resilience and well-being,” helping them recognize “what some of the symptoms of stress are, and how to look for them in particularly vulnerable people in their communities.”

In addition to helping others, Presbyterians from those congregations may have suffered damage to their own homes and churches – they too may face months of repairs and mucking out and financial stress. “We try to deeply listen particularly to affected pastors and presbytery leadership,” especially if those individuals are themselves survivors, Kraus said.

Soldiers with the Texas Army National Guard support relief efforts to residents of Cyprus Creek as they fight back from the effects of Hurricane Harvey. (US Army National Guard photo by: Capt. Martha Nigrelle, CC 2.0)

PDA helps pastors and volunteers understand “how does an interfaith table get put together,” so Presbyterians can work in partnership with other community and faith groups involved in the response, Kraus said. They provide training on how to assess the needs within a congregation – who needs a roof repaired, who can’t do their own mucking out, and how to “sit with the Brethren, the Baptists, the Methodists, and share the resources and skills so you can address the needs, particularly of the most vulnerable.”

Another step in the process: determining when and how volunteer teams might be used in the recovery. Are there congregations, camps or other stable places that weren’t affected by the wind, the rain or the flooding that can host volunteer teams?

“People always want to go in right away,” Kraus said. “Long-term rebuilding is needed a lot of times.”

Kraus was a pastor in Miami when Hurricane Andrew stormed through in 1992, and when the PDA response network was much less extensive. People started sending her supplies, so “both my fellowship halls were filled with old clothes and stuff. We don’t want people to send that. It’s not helpful to people. … The best way after a catastrophic event to express concern is always to give money. That supports the self-determination of the community. It does not become a secondary deluge.”

In coordinating volunteer teams, PDA will work first with national groups that organize volunteers for short-term mucking out and cleanup. Those volunteer teams will need a work partner and a place for them to lie down on sleeping bags; PDA’s Volunteer Villages won’t be set up yet, so those response teams need to be “almost completely self-contained,” Kraus said.

Later, probably several months from now, PDA will find sites to host Volunteer Villages – a church or a camp set up with beds, work partners and the ability to match congregations and teams that want to help with those needing assistance.

PDA also will provide training in compassion fatigue and resiliency – recognizing that, as Kraus put it, “people get fried several months into a response. They just get emotionally worn out. They’re exhausted. They’re adding disaster response on top of their day jobs,” trying to help the most vulnerable while they rebuild their own homes and churches. And some people don’t think they need help “until they need it badly.”

PDA also looks at systemic issues –such as the rapid expansion of the Houston metropolitan area – including what advocacy might be needed regarding structural inequities, climate change or public policies that contribute to the severity of a disaster. In that work, PDA (which is lodged in the PC(USA)’s Compassion, Peace and Justice ministry area) works in partnership with PC(USA) ministries concerned more directly with poverty alleviation and justice issues, such as the Office of Public Witness, the Presbyterian Hunger Program and Self-Development of People, Kraus said.

Some of those affected by Harvey had already been displaced previously by Hurricane Katrina or by other large storms including hurricanes Ike and Gustav that have besieged the Gulf Coast. “There’s got to be a lot of long-term trauma that’s going to be triggered here,” Kraus said. And areas along the Texas and Louisiana “are very vulnerable areas, working areas where there are a lot of people who don’t have regular work and stable homes. Large cities that have a lot of people in poverty – they’re the most vulnerable.”

Kraus also is asking Presbyterians to pray – while recognizing they have a range of theological views about how and whether God intervenes.

“I pray not to change God, but to change myself,” she said. “I think prayer is about the attentiveness to the power of the divine and to the power of communities to show up and be the hands and feed of God and the face of Christ. I think we pray to wake ourselves, to unite ourselves in a transcendent way, and to draw the spirit into our ability and willingness to be the hands and feet of Christ.”

Here’s how to donate PDA’s Hurricane Harvey relief effort:

To donate online: click here.

To mail a check:

  • Make the check out to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.
  • Make a notation on the memo line designating the donation for Disaster Relief–U.S. Hurricane Response, DR000169
  • Mail the check to:

Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
P.O. Box 643700
Pittsburgh, PA, 15264-3700

To donate by phone: Call 1-800-872-3283 Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (EDT) to pay by credit card.

To give via text: Text “PDA” to 20222 to donate $10 to PDA’s General Relief account.