The COVID-19 pandemic is challenging the resourcefulness of disaster recovery organizations just as a busy hurricane season is predicted for 2020.
The limitations of shelter-in-place and social distancing restrictions have already prevented the formation or deployment of volunteer teams to areas of need and will likely continue to do so through the summer. Hurricane season runs June 1 to Nov. 30.
“Given the predictions that there will be a second or even third wave (of COVID-19), it could be weeks and months before we and send personnel” to disaster zones, said Rick Burnette, domestic disaster response coordinator for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
CBF disaster response in the Bahamas and Puerto Rico has already been impacted, Burnette said.
Those and other delays are likely given a hurricane season predicted to be above average in intensity, he said.
Burnette spoke with Baptist News Global about the challenges faced by disaster response organizations and volunteers during a viral pandemic. His comments are included here, edited for brevity and clarity.
How do you respond to disasters in a time of disruptive pandemic?
We don’t know. We’re just like the churches, CBF organizations and other denominational groups. We’re trying to figure it out as we go. This is really new territory. This was not something we were planning for at the beginning of the year.
What were you planning for?
I had been working on a tool for CBF churches that I hope to debut in the coming year called “CBF Ready: Disaster Prepared Congregations.” Part of that toolkit would be to help churches identify where the risks lie. If you’re on the coast in the Southeast, then it’s hurricanes, of course. Or maybe where you are it’s more about tornados or flooding. Or it could be man-made disasters. But nowhere on that tool did we put anything down as pandemic.
Do you consider COVID-19 in itself to be a disaster that requires response and recovery?
In terms of the way that agencies or CBF disaster response usually works, in terms of providing front-line involvement, no. I’m sure there are CBF members who are on the front lines in terms of health, serving as nurses and doctors. On the other hand, the pandemic overlaps with other areas of ministry, such as mitigating the food insecurity resulting from the pandemic.
We are seeing the strain on food banks and food pantries and many of our CBF colleagues are heavily involved in this type of ministry right now. And there are those who are helping vulnerable refugee and immigrant populations.
Are you still making plans for the 2020 hurricane season?
We’re planning because we are expecting that it will be a busy hurricane season. But at the same time, we know we are in a pandemic and we are listening to public health experts say that a second wave and third wave are likely, and that those waves could coincide with hurricane season.
This will be a new twist for us and we don’t know how we might engage. At the same time, we have to make sure our equipment trailers and shower trailers are in the right places – that they are centrally located even while not knowing where these disasters will happen. We have to make sure we have our communications chain in place.
Have natural disasters occurred since the pandemic prevented movement?
Since the pandemic started we have had localized disasters. We had consecutive weekends of tornadoes in the Southeast and there have been impacts in areas where CBF churches are located.
After the April tornadoes hit we were in touch with those areas. In those cases, our local partners handled those situations on their own.
If we know that disaster is likely, we are quickly in touch with our state and regional representatives. For disaster response, we come in at the invitation of the state and regional organizations, who will be operating in cooperation with their local partners. Our involvement might be rallying financial assistance in the form of grants.
What are you telling individuals and teams who are typically involved in disaster recovery every year?
We acknowledge our current situation where much of our network remains in lockdown and that as a result our regular activities have been canceled until further notice. We are letting them know we are doing what we can.
Are needs going unmet?
The impact is real. For instance, teams slated to go to the Bahamas for hurricane recovery this past month, and in coming weeks and months, have had to cancel. This has thrown a wrench into our Bahama recovery efforts, at the same time we are providing recovery grants and we are continuing to ship materials over to the Bahamas. We are prepositioning things so that when things do open up, at least for stretches, people can have the resources they need to continue. And the local population is continuing to work the best that they can.
Is financial giving the best way to volunteer for disaster recovery these days?
We’ve encouraged giving to support local response. There are members of churches who are healthy and young enough to go and volunteer with the food sharing and other ministries. I think that kind of activity is taking place throughout the country.
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