By Jeff Brumley
Knoxvillian Kendall McCosh spent the better part of last week providing disaster relief — not in the Sandy-plagued Northeast but in Louisiana, rehabbing homes ravaged by winds and flooding from Hurricane Isaac on Aug. 29.
McCosh, a former general contractor, and nine mission team members from Ball Camp Baptist Church in Tennessee, soaked up the gratitude that came with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship project. But they also caught some of the local anxiety that La Place, La., would be abandoned in favor of Hurricane Sandy response.
“There’s a concern here that this area is going to be forgotten now while they are still in need,” McCosh said.
Months after Isaac and long after the headline-making first-responders left town, CBF officials vow that La Place will not be lost in the media attention up north.
“We’re committed there as long as we have funds and people to do it,” said Charles Ray, CBF’s national disaster-response coordinator. “We’re there for the long pull.”
Ray and other officials admit the funds and volunteers are often unpredictable. But the frustrating part is how quickly their own base often forgets about CBF’s role as a second-responder.
In that dilemma they are not alone. Leaders of other faith-based relief groups say that second-responders provide the largest portion of relief but receive the lowest amount of recognition – both in the general population and often among their own memberships.
Compounding all of that is a palpable sense of what responders call “compassion fatigue” among potential donors and volunteers, said Reid Doster, coordinator of CBF Louisiana.
There has hardly been a year since 9/11 that Americans haven’t been faced with some major disaster, whether it’s hurricanes in the United States, tsunamis in Asia or the Haiti earthquake, Doster said. All along they feel compelled to give, but can only handle so much.
Ray Johnson, coordinator of CBF Florida, said Hurricane Sandy brought her own fatigue. “She hit Cuba, the Bahamas, New York City and New Jersey,” he said, all of which have generated pleas for aid.
“All we can do is put out the word and hope that people come through – and they have come through,” he said, referring to an emergency shipment of 8,000 pounds of food to Cuba and boxes of clothing headed to the Bahamas.
Meanwhile, Doster said, the response to Isaac has ebbed and flowed.
Since September, a dozen church or ministry teams have visited for short-term missions in La Place, a city of about 30,000 wedged between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain, 30 miles west of New Orleans. Another 10 groups are scheduled between mid-November and March.
So far, most of them are churches whose core value includes mission projects involving long-term disaster relief, Doster said. Others, he said, may be simply overwhelmed and, due to the economy, more focused on projects closer to home.
“I don’t think we often consider the toll that it takes on those good-hearted people to give and give and give and come on their own expense,” Doster said. “That pool is fairly small.”
The need is still great in La Place, where an estimated 7,000 families remain displaced from their homes due to hurricane-related damage. About 500 have insufficient or no homeowners insurance.
Doster said he’s OK with the slow, unfolding nature of volunteerism “because it’s consistent with how we describe our mission and our style,” Doster said.
What frustrates him are comments that CBF should be on the scene with other first-responders – like the Salvation Army and Southern Baptist Convention — in the immediate aftermath of storms like Isaac and Sandy.
“They want to be perceived as really responsive,” he said. “But we have limited resources and limited equipment, so we cannot respond to all of it – that’s just a reality.”
Networking as first response
That doesn’t mean that CBF and other Baptist groups are completely limited to second-responder roles, other Baptist leaders said. CBF often gets into disaster areas early by providing financial assistance to churches, ministries and nonprofits that are located in disaster areas and know the needs.
In New York, for example, CBF last week provided $15,000 to a faith-based group in New York City to provide heaters for victims of Sandy.
“We have grown through networking,” Ray said. “We have responded to every bad thing that’s happened, often through partners.”
Meanwhile the North American Baptist Fellowship is in the process of developing a first-responder emergency response system, said Harry Rowland, leader of NABF’s Disaster Response Network.
When those groups leave an area, the network will host an online bulletin board to help other fellowship members provide long-term response, he said.
‘Recovery starts when cameras leave’
The tension between first- and second-responders is felt outside the Baptist world, too, said Barry Shade, associate director of domestic emergency response for Church World Service, a faith-based disaster-relief agency.
One truth about disaster relief is that first-responders get the glory, Shade said.
But another is this, he said: “Long-term recovery starts when the cameras leave.”
“Eighty percent of the money comes in during the first two weeks” after a disaster, Shade said. “And 80 percent gets spent over the next two years.”
Church World Service is made up of close to 40 different Christian groups who bring different talents to the table. Lutherans are known for construction management, Methodists for providing spiritual and emotional care and the Disciples of Christ for coordinating volunteer housing.
“It’s amazing how many organizations are involved and how many people are helping in so many different ways,” Shade said.
‘Tripping over each other’
And it really woudn’t work any other way, said Karen Smilowitz, associate professor of engineering and management sciences at Northwestern University.
Smilowitz, whose specialty is in the logistics of emergency response and management, said the chaos immediately following hurricanes, tornadoes and other disasters would be compounded if every faith-based and nonprofit rushed to the scene as first-responders.
“That was one of the issues in Haiti, where you saw all these groups coming in and tripping over each other,” she said.
She praised the Red Cross, Salvation Army and Southern Baptist Convention for their massive relief capabilities. But that kind of response only goes so far.
“Let them be the first ones and then let the smaller ones move in,” Smilowitz said. “In terms of large-scale perspective, that’s exactly what we need.”
Still, Smilowitz said she understands those smaller organizations are under pressure to get more attention for their efforts.
The solution in part is to wage vigorous social media campaigns around long-term relief efforts, she said.
“They need to communicate how they are the only ones in there now,” she said.
In La Place, that communication can’t be fast enough, McCosh said.
The Ball Camp Baptist team focused mostly on two homes, tearing down wallpaper, putting in new sheet rock, painting and installing new floors.
The rewards have been great, McCosh said.
“The lady we worked with said they have been praying and not knowing how they were going to get anything done,” he said. “For her and her husband, we were an answered prayer.”
But there are so many others they couldn’t get to, he added.
“We hear of all these other needs, and not to be able to get to them saddens us.”