In August of 2005, Hurricane Katrina swept through Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi, wreaking havoc over several hundred square miles with dollar losses in the billions. Last month central Alabama suffered substantial damage when a tornado crushed the City of Tuscaloosa, Alabama and surrounding areas. On Sunday, Joplin, Mo., suffered devastating losses due to tornados and just yesterday, the central U.S. was hit by violent storms. When such destruction occurs, should we expect the government to step in and rebuild damaged areas or is the church capable of assuming such a huge role?
Bart Smelley, a resident of Tuscaloosa, Ala., is no stranger to destruction. For the past two years he has worked with Global Effects Ministry to manufacture and distribute water filters to the hardest hit areas of Haiti. He’s seen firsthand the most devastating destruction the western hemisphere has experienced in over a century, but now the destruction hit closer to home. In April, while on a mission trip in Haiti, Bart received word his son’s home had been hit by a tornado.
Smelley’s experience in Haiti rarely involved working with government agencies; Haiti’s agencies were all but incapable of providing any assistance. Instead, it was the work of church and non-profit groups that traveled thousands of miles to help the people of the Caribbean island.
Yet when Smelley arrived back in Tuscaloosa to help his son and daughter-in-law, he was amazed at the efficiency of government agencies and churches working together.
“The churches in Tuscaloosa responded hand-in-hand with government and relief organizations to meet the needs of our community. It’s the biggest joint effort I have seen in my life,” said Smelley.
Mark Engholm, Public Affairs Officer for the Alabama Emergency Management Agency, echoed Smelley’s comments.
“As a government agency, our primary goal after a natural disaster is life safety. After that, we move into the recovery process, then the rebuilding stage, which can take years. Government agencies play an integral role but our primary goal is to help our neighbors,” said Engholm.
Volunteer organizations, commonly referred to as “VOAD’s,” play a critical role alongside government agencies and are seen as an effective communication avenue in local communities.
Engholm has been watching the press conferences in Missouri and reliving what they went through in Alabama in late April.
“I really feel for them because I know what they’re going through. Unfortunately, their work will continue when the cameras and TV trucks leave. That’s when we’ll really need the help of the VOAD’s in our community.”
Tuscaloosa may have been the exception. Far too often, communities have relied on government agencies to step in and pick up the pieces caused by such natural disasters. When Hurricane Katrina swept through New Orleans in 2005, everyone from the state capitol to individual citizens began throwing criticism toward Washington and the Bush administration for not responding quickly enough. Criticism centered on condemnations of mismanagement and lack of preparation in response to the hurricane’s aftermath.
The Rev. Billy Owen, a retired Alabama minister who has volunteered in Birmingham compared the recent destruction to the post-Civil War era.
“When the Civil War ended there was no government service or any agency to fly in and save the day. Rebuilding in many areas of the south took years or even decades, but it amazes me how much people can do when they put their minds to it. I’ve seen the churches in the state step up and do the Lord’s work but the reality is we can’t rebuild as quickly if the government doesn’t help out in a big way. Having both the church and the government involved is the fastest way to rebuild,” stated Owen.