Out Here Hope Remains

There is hope for the helpless ... Cry Out To Jesus. -- Third Day

Friday, August 25, 2006

Dangers Within Disasters

I look back upon the past year and reflect upon the adventure that has been ours to pursue. We have made more friends than most people make in a lifetime. We know people in over 25 states and a few foreign countries. We have seen the look in a person's eye when you give them something with no strings attached. We have watched the tears of joy, frustration, grief, anguish, and Spirit. Volumes will be written about this experience, and we will tell these stories when we are old men and women to anyone who will listen. Only after the regeneration of all things will we know if Katrina was the evil result of a cataclysmic spiritual war, a punishment from a righteously angry God, or simply the result of nature's currents.One thing that we will remember is that there were dangers within the disaster. Beyond the winds and the waves, there were dangers of epic proportion as they related to individual lives. They were disasters of human making that did not have to exist, but caused additional pain and suffering. 1. The Federal Government Moved Too Slowly. I don't know where the communication breakdown really was. I do not know who is truly responsible. I just know that for weeks on end people lived in tents and had very little with which to survive. I know that some people had two and three FEMA campers in their yard, while elderly people slept on their porches or under tarps for months. I remember Debbie that we visited many times, bringing supplies to her and her twelve year old daughter. She resorted to flagging down the trucks hauling the campers, hoping they were looking for her. I remember a ninety year old grandmother sleeping on the floor with only a sheet between her and the mold infested wood. I talked with a lady who had a camper in her yard for three weeks, but no keys to get inside. There was an elderly lady near our church building who had to have a handicap ramp to get into her home. In her 90s, she was unable to use the camper that was placed there for her. These are not uncommon stories, but they tell the story of the disaster of the bloated behemoth that could not move quickly enough to save its own. 2. The Dishonest Contractors / Workers Took Advantage of Victims. Like vultures descending upon a carcass, greedy 'contractors' and day workers descended upon the Gulf Coast. Promises were made about what kind of work could be done and how quickly it could be done. Still dazed by the storm and impatient to get back into their homes, many elderly people ignored the warnings and paid for work before it was done. Thousands of dollars were paid to unknown and unscrupulous thieves who worked a half day, left for supplies, and never returned. Just this week a man was arrested in Mobile for putting up hurricane shutters...with velcro. Bids were made for jobs, huge amounts of money were requested to do mundane things. The cost to have work done increased significantly on August 29th, another punch in the stomach after losing our homes. Hispanic workers who came to work, but who spoke very little English, were worked hard and paid nothing. Even this week a church was exposed on the Coast for hiring Hispanic workers and shorting them their pay. Lies were told by amateurs, suggesting they were professionals. One lady paid someone to hang sheetrock in her home, and later discovered that the sheetrock was falling off of the wall it was so poorly installed. As most people have no idea how to rebuild their homes, they were at the mercy of others. And some of those others took advantage in sickening ways. 3. "Experts" and Relief Organizations Made Their Way To the Coast. They sought to tell everyone how they ought to be organized and what methodology to use in serving the community. Perhaps they had been in other disasters in other places. Maybe they had specific training, and they knew that we were doing things the wrong way. Many of these 'experts' embedded themselves within existing organizations and took on an air of authority. The trouble is that they made the ordinary giving of service into a bureaucratic nightmare. Many of them sought funding for their advice and 'work'. Organizations were formed and had meeting after meeting after meeting, while many Christians were in the streets distributing supplies and on the phone calling for more. Some who came and presented themselves as 'friends' actually worked against us in significant ways. Why? I cannot even begin to know that answer. Misinformation was spread. I know of situations where Christians who were at a distance became discouraged about relief efforts on the coast because of the intentional spread of misinformation. Christians told lies about other Christians, hoping to accrue financial support and exalt themselves. Some Christians told half-truths about what they were doing and how much they were doing, so that supporters across the nation would keep the dollars flowing. In a crisis situation, it's hard to tell what's actually going on - even while you're here. The chaos is an excellent cover for sinful motives. 4. Post Traumatic Stress Robbed People of Their Marriages, Friendships, Jobs, and Life. Marriages began to suffer as everyone dealt with this disaster in their own way. The suicide rate in Jackson County went up 200%. Things we were able to cope with before the storm suddenly became huge obstacles to us. Hospitals filled up with heart attacks and strokes, and other stress-related diseases. The police were kept busy with domestic disputes and an out of control homeless population.Church members grumbled against one another, making accusations and complaining about mundane things. Some quit church altogether. Long lines and short supplies at stores gave us a huge level of frustration. Businesses tried to open, but they couldn't hire enough workers to make it work. Parents had hard times keeping their children encouraged, and teenagers suffered depression along with everyone else. The use of illegal drugs and abuse of alcohol became the choices of escape for many who were hurting, which only brought more hurt. 5. The Post-Katrina influx of 'permanent' volunteers. People came to the Coast with bright visions of making a fortune doing day work. They arrived at our church building with no tools, no transportation, no identification ... just people who wanted to work ... and be paid. Of course we do not pay - this is a volunteer effort. They had no where to stay and no food to eat. Sometimes we 'adopted' them and tried to help them get back on their feet. Sometimes they didn't want to get on their feet, but would rather just make it through one more day. Often they were involved in drugs or alcohol abuse. No doubt many of them had criminal backgrounds. They were unable to get real jobs due to background checks and drug screens. I see people walking the streets here every day that once worked with us a short time - until their situation became obvious. I also see people who came in with big problems in life, but we were able to help because they were open to the help. My advice when someone came to the church and had no tools, no transportation, no job? Go home. We have a lot to do here, and taking care of those who come without the ability to survive is not on the list. Maybe that sounds cold. 6. Service with Strings Attached was another danger in the disaster. We had all kinds of people coming in to help us, from every faith family ... and some of no faith. Through it all Central maintained her identity, but some questioned that. At least one group of volunteers went home because a brother from the Christian Church spoke one night in a devotional. We also had churches that decided to back off from helping us because we had a variety of denominations coming in to help and work with us. The joy of having all of these various groups here is that they were able to see who the church of Christ really is ... and perhaps outgrow some of the stereotypes we have earned. The tragedy is that the way some of the churches of Christ from other places behaved about the matter only served to further those stereotypes. When is it ever wrong to work together to serve and help someone who is hurting? These disasters were largely alleviated by the volunteers who just kept coming to work. We didn't have much time to think about these things because there was always something to do, though they were hurtful. And God will set all things aright in the last day. This post is simply to illustrate some of the struggles we had over the past year. There is a positive side, though! The Federal Government did place thousands of campers in Mississippi and many people still live in them - for which they are grateful. There were honest contractors and workers who came and truly blessed our communities. There were organizations who truly stood by us every step of the way. There were those who learned to thrive in a very stressful post-Katrina world. Some of the 'permanent' volunteers are now people that we love dearly as brothers. And there were many more churches of Christ that served with us, than those who withdrew their help. I'm not sure how to avoid these things in another disaster, but it might help to be aware of them if we face future disasters. I have not offered solutions in this post, but simply observations.