Mud is heavy and other lessons in disaster response

Barry Shade | May 13, 2015

Barry Shade, CWS Associate Director for US Disaster Response, on Far Rockaway Beach listening to Destiny, a Superstorm Sandy survivor. Photo: Carol Fouke-Mpoyo / CWS

Barry Shade, CWS Associate Director for US Disaster Response, on Far Rockaway Beach listening to Destiny, a Superstorm Sandy survivor. Photo: Carol Fouke-Mpoyo / CWS

Mud is surprisingly heavy.

That’s the very first thing I learned about disaster response.  It was 1972 and I was in my twenties, helping a family friend clean up after Hurricane Agnes caused the nearby Juniata River to rise to 30 feet above the flood stage.

The basement and main level of our friend’s house were a mess. There was so much mud, it was heavy and it was so hard to clean it off anything.

As I shoveled, scraped and mopped, I could not foresee that I would be involved in disaster response for many of the next 43 years.

I was involved in disaster preparedness and response work for much of my 30-year career in the U.S. Air Force.  I retired in 2002, and then worked for the Federal Emergency Management Agency from 2008 to 2011 before becoming head of U.S. disaster response for CWS.

Along the way, I participated in several trips to New Orleans to help rebuild homes damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.  Those trips were organized by the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and I went with other members of my congregation, Saint Andrew Christian Church in Olathe, Kansas.

Along the way, there has been a lot more to learn than just that mud is heavy.

Most importantly, I’ve learned that disaster recovery requires participation by the whole community. I’ve learned that churches and other faith-based organizations – both local and national – are invaluable contributors.

When disaster strikes, local congregations quickly step up with volunteers to help survivors “muck out” and eventually rebuild.  They feed and shelter survivors, first responders and volunteer work crews.  They store donated construction materials and other supplies.  They pray for survivors and are a source of emotional and spiritual care for people putting their lives back together after tragedy.

As recovery proceeds, local faith leaders join community-based long-term recovery groups, and organize to seek out and help survivors who lack the means to recover on their own.  These groups’ goal is to restore disaster survivors to safe homes and peace of mind to go on with their lives.

For their part, national faith bodies – including Church World Service and participating communions – support U.S. disaster recovery work with fundraising, material goods such as CWS Kits and Blankets, volunteer deployment and disaster response training.

We have built strong working partnerships with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, The Salvation Army, the American Red Cross, national and state “VOADs” (Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster) and many other secular and faith-based organizations.

In my five years with CWS, the training piece has been the most gratifying.  Together, CWS and participating communions have trained many thousands of people in local churches and long-term recovery groups in what it takes to put a community back together following a disaster.

We have collaborated to offer on-site “Recovery Tools and Training” workshops, to which CWS and the communions have contributed our special expertise on such topics as disaster case management; communications; fundraising and accountability; construction and volunteer management and emotional and spiritual care.

In addition, CWS has reached thousands more disaster response specialists with its webinars on subjects ranging from “Health and Safety in Disaster Recovery” to “Disability and Disaster.”  Our emergency response specialists have trained countless more on conference calls and in one-on-one conversations by phone or in person.

Much of what it takes to rebuild a community is knowledge – and more than anything else, we at CWS are trainers.  The result: so many more individuals and communities across the United States better able to withstand and recover from disaster.

Barry Shade will retire May 15 as CWS Associate Director for Domestic Emergency Response.