August’s tragic flooding in south Louisiana killed thirteen people and damaged over 40,000 homes in the worst natural disaster since Hurricane Sandy hit the east coast several years ago. August seems a long time ago – but for those people and businesses affected, it’s by all means still a daily reality. The flood waters have receded, certainly, but families are still displaced from their homes, wrangling with insurance companies, if indeed they were fortunate to have coverage for this sort of event, and working tirelessly to put life back the way it was. Schools and businesses are dealing with the same problems, just on a larger scale. So what’s happening in the ongoing relief and assistance effort, who is involved, and what can be done to help? And, on a larger scale, how can each of us prepare for potential disasters in our own milieu, and provide compassionate and appropriate help to the victims of disasters near and far?

National organizations such as AARP have led the way in relief and recovery efforts. The AARP Foundation set up a relief fund to support victims, especially the thousands of people over 50 who were affected. The AARP fund matches, dollar for dollar, its members’ contributions, up to a total of $250,000, and 100% of funds are being directed to qualified organizations providing relief and recovery support to the disaster victims.

Deann Servos, Executive Director of Prodisee Pantry, the largest emergency food pantry in Baldwin County AL and one of the largest on the Gulf Coast, is well versed in the realities of disaster relief. “We responded to the disaster in Louisiana by referring the hundreds of folks who called Prodisee Pantry seeking ways to help to various vette relief programs who were actively assisting with the victims of the flooding – including the Alabama-West Florida Conference United Methodist Church, Samaritan’s Purse, Feeding America, 3 Circle Church, CityHope, and more,” says Servos. “I like to refer to the ABCs of disaster response,” she explains. “The first response needs to be from professionals and trained volunteers, and must address immediate, basic human needs. Victims of almost any disaster – and particularly something like the Louisiana flooding that displaces so many people so suddenly – need drinking water, basic sanitary needs, toothbrushes and toothpaste, flashlights and batteries, and packaged new clean underwear. They don’t need clothes and toys and furniture, because there is no place to put them. I remember after Ivan or Katrina, receiving a giant truckload of winter clothing from a church in the Midwest – it was still hot, humid summer here, and we surely didn’t need woolens right then!” In this phase of immediate need, the Red Cross and Salvation Army are critical providers and managers of shelter facilities, and are equipped and ready to put systems in place quickly.

The second phase of relief begins about a week into the recovery process and is focused on cleanup. “This phase is ongoing, and takes much longer than anyone outside can imagine,” says Servos. “The greatest needs are bleach, heavy-duty garbage bags, paper towels, mops and buckets, rubber gloves and work gloves, and snow shovels or other lightweight wide shovels.” Another critical need at this point is food and housing for the volunteers who show up to assist with cleanup efforts. The third phase usually follows in another week or two. The rebuilding phase can go on for months, even years, Servos says. “The best and most efficient way to help with the rebuilding phase, unless you have specific skills that are needed, is to donate gift cards, or give money to a reputable relief organization. The big box stores are usually open very quickly and are stocked to meet the specific needs of the area. The money from gift cards is spent in the community, getting people back to work and stimulating the local economy.”

Prodisee Pantry’s mission is to serve people within a 75-mile radius of their Spanish Fort facility, so they did not send food and supplies to south Louisiana. “The Feeding America umbrella organization has food banks and supplies pre-positioned around the area and can mobilize quickly. Feeding the Gulf Coast, formerly the Bay Area Food Bank, located in Theodore AL, is part of the network and I’m sure they responded to the needs of shelters in Louisiana,” says Servos. “We at Prodisee Pantry are committed to our area Emergency Management Services to provide food to shelters within our area, and with what we have onsite, we can mobilize and disperse food and supplies to agencies, churches, and shelters within eight hours.”

All along the Gulf Coast, individuals, businesses, churches and nonprofits did in fact respond to Louisiana in its hour of need. Restaurant owners banded together to send food and people to prepare it. Churches sent truckloads of cleaning supplies. Agencies will be continuing to try to meet the ongoing needs of people working to rebuild homes and lives. Volunteers and donations – money, building materials, supplies, food and clothing – will continue to be needed, as the rebuilding process will go on for many months, if not longer. “For many communities, rebuilding from a major disaster can go on for years,” says Servos. “For a family that suffers major losses, it can take as long as five years to get back on track.”


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