Bringing Experience Back Home

Sandra Kennedy-Owes | January 2, 2014

CWS Emergency Response Specialist Sandra Kennedy-Owes. Photo: Matt Hackworth/CWS

CWS Emergency Response Specialist Sandra Kennedy-Owes. Photo: Matt Hackworth/CWS

I’ve lived most of my life in Mobile, Ala., where the last thing we expected last Christmas was a tornado. But that’s what we got. What’s more, we got hit twice.

On Dec. 20, 2012, Mobile was in full Christmas preparations mode when an EF-1 tornado struck the downtown area. It damaged more than 100 homes along with the office and trailers of the American Red Cross, which nonetheless was able to offer emergency shelter, food and water to tornado survivors.

Just five days later, on Christmas Day, an EF-2 tornado caused additional damage in five areas across Mobile County. Another 120 homes were affected, as was Murphy High School, my alma mater and from which my daughter Rayna was to graduate in May 2013.

As a Church World Service U.S. emergency response specialist, my job is to help train and mentor local long-term recovery groups across the South as they organize to identify and meet disaster survivors’ unmet needs.

Right now, my attention is spread out among multiple local long-term recovery groups helping survivors of floods, tornados and other disasters from El Reno, Okla., to Gordon County, Ga.

Time and distance prevent me from actually joining such groups, but when disaster hit Mobile, I naturally wanted to find out what was happening and what I and/or CWS could do. I felt it important to offer my own hometown my 30 years of professional disaster response experience.

The Mobile County VOAD (Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster) provided me with some preliminary information, and several VOAD members encouraged me to join the county’s long-term recovery group.

Eventually, I was named vice chair. I accepted reluctantly because I was not sure how much time I could devote to just one long-term recovery group out of the many in my region that I try to support. But the experience has proved rewarding, because I have been able to provide service directly to my local community.

Right away, I encouraged Ron Baughman, the group’s newly appointed chair, to apply for a $5,000 CWS emergency response start-up grant, which enabled the group to hire an estimator/construction manager to get the recovery moving forward. I was able to recommend an individual for the position who had performed that assignment very well for the United Methodist Church during Hurricane Katrina recovery.

In addition, I’ve been able to advise the group on the necessity of using disaster case management to determine unmet needs and prioritize projects. I provided new disaster case managers with an abbreviated version of case management guidelines.

Lutheran Ministries of Alabama and the Alabama-West Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church have stayed the course in support of Mobile County’s long-term recovery. Catholic Social Services has been phenomenal in providing direct assistance to families. Other denominations and communions also have contributed.

We did not receive a federal disaster declaration, and as a result FEMA resources were not available to tornado survivors except for SBA loans. Some qualified for the SBA loans, but many did not. The American Red Cross and the faith community have provided the remainder of the resources so far.

As I reflect on the past year, I celebrate that my daughter has graduated from the restored Murphy High School, and that some Mobile County households have recovered from the Christmas 2012 tornados. But I am concerned that some families with few or no resources are still in need. We still need approximately $175,000 to get 35 families recovered.

From this experience of actually serving as a member of the local long-term recovery group, I have learned firsthand the difficulties communities with limited resources face when they are survivors of a tragedy like the Christmas 2012 tornados. The challenge continues to engage the community and donors to assist families with their recovery.

Sandra Kennedy-Owes, Emergency Response Specialist, CWS

Editor’s note: Contributions to help survivors of this and other disasters may be sent to your denomination/communion or directly to Church World Service, Attn. Appeal 627-Y, P.O. Box 968, Elkhart, IN 46515. Donations also may be made online.