Louisiana Leads in Diocesan Disaster Response

Every year, between May and October, communities along the United States Gulf Coast brace themselves for hurricane season. This year, after sweeping through the Caribbean and into the Gulf of Mexico in late August, Hurricane Isaac parked itself over southern Louisiana and dumped up to 20 inches of rain. Creeks and rivers were overwhelmed, flooding houses in low-lying areas around New Orleans – such as Slidell, LaPlace and Braithwaite. Power was out for days in much of the impacted region.

According to Deacon Elaine Clements, the Diocesan Disaster Coordinator for the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana, homes in Braithwaite were submerged in 15 feet of water. “Isaac is this community’s Katrina,” she said, referring to the 2005 storm that caused an estimated $108 billion in damage as it swamped large areas of the Gulf Coast. As a staff member of Episcopal Community Services of Louisiana (ECSLA), Clements is experienced in assessing needs and supporting local churches and agencies as they respond to devastation. “Unfortunately, the more you do this, the better you get,” she said.

Episcopal Relief & Development partnered with the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina to form the Office of Disaster Response. That organization transformed into Episcopal Community Services of Louisiana as the diocese sought to deepen and sustain its focus on social ministry in vulnerable communities.

Living in the bayous and lowlands of the Mississippi Delta comes with its share of environmental risks. After Katrina in 2005, there was Gustav in 2008, which blasted Louisiana with powerful winds that tore buildings apart, knocked down power lines and set off tornadoes in Mississippi and Alabama. Non-hurricane disasters include the BP oil disaster in 2010, which hit the local tourism and fishing industry, and the 2011 Mississippi River floods, which necessitated the flooding of the Atchafalaya River Basin spillway to prevent catastrophic damage in Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

Consequently, communities and organizations in southern Louisiana have made disaster preparedness and risk reduction a major priority. As the disaster response arm of the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana, ECSLA is at the forefront of the Church’s efforts to ensure that congregations are prepared to protect vital assets and use their resources in service of those in need.

Episcopal Relief & Development is currently working with diocesan and ECSLA staff as well as the Diocesan Disaster Team – made up of clergy and lay people, and headed by Clements as Diocesan Disaster Coordinator – to identify parish activities that could be expanded with additional assistance to reach a greater number of people. Diocesan Disaster Coordinators are appointed by bishops to receive in-depth training and serve as the liaison between leaders in impacted communities and Episcopal Relief & Development’s US Disaster Program.

In these early stages of disaster response, the primary activities are needs assessment and outreach to evacuees. According to Clements, the biggest need is for gas cards and food vouchers. “People boarded up their property, filled up their gas tank and paid for two or three nights in a hotel,” she said, “but hotels are expensive, so they evacuated from the hotels to then stay with family.” Clements went on to say that some people are driving 50 miles roundtrip for work every day because of where they are living now, and that the extra travel time and expense of gas are creating additional hardship.

Clements also explained that with no electricity for up to a week, families lost the food in their refrigerators and freezers, and businesses were closed, meaning a loss of wages for people who didn’t work during that time. “A lot of people are 25 percent short this month, and can’t take off more time to stand in line for emergency food assistance,” Clements said. “These are people who live on the edge of disaster at all times, and then a natural disaster comes and pushes them over the edge.”

To keep people from falling through the cracks in a disaster situation, Episcopal Relief & Development’s program team recommends working intentionally on strengthening community relationships, and creating a disaster response plan with vulnerable populations in mind. In support of these goals, the US Disaster Program offers regional trainings for Diocesan Disaster Coordinators, and maintains a resource library with preparedness planning workbooks and other materials to help congregations tailor their plans and activities to their own strengths and community needs.

Katie Mears, Episcopal Relief & Development’s Program Manager for US Preparedness and Response, has been involved with the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana’s disaster response efforts since Hurricane Katrina. However, according to Mears, the most foundational elements of a successful preparedness plan are universal: knowing who the most vulnerable members of a community are, and knowing who to call in case of a disaster.

“We encourage every congregation to go through at least the most basic sections of the preparedness planning guide,” she said, “but having functional knowledge of who to call and who to check on is even more important. Writing these things down helps communicate this knowledge to others, but discussing and practicing the plan is key in making it work.”

In recent years, the Diocesan Disaster Team has made increased communication a priority. Deacon Clements explained that ECSLA has become much more web-conscious, and was active on Twitter and Facebook with updates on the storm and what to do in case of emergency. Over the first 24 hours, conference calls helped rapidly assess damage and mobilize resources to the areas of greatest need. A database is now being assembled to match donated items with impacted households around the diocese. In addition, a “cheat sheet” with important information and diocesan contacts was circulated in advance of the storm.

“The Diocese of Louisiana has been through a lot,” said Mears, “but as a result they are probably at the forefront of disaster preparedness among dioceses in the US. We are grateful for their partnership, since the lessons they have learned are helping dioceses around the country, and especially for Deacon Elaine [Clements], whose insight and experience has been so valuable.”

Visit www.episcopalrelief.org to learn more about the US Disaster Program, browse the resource library, and volunteer your skills through the Ready to Serve database. To support this program and help dioceses around the country to prepare for and respond to disasters, please make a contribution to the US Disaster Response Fund