When crisis hits, Canadians pull together
By Beth Hiemstra | Tuesday, August 14, 2012
Photo courtesy of The Salvation Army.
As soon as the police allowed people back into the village of Perth-Andover, Dirk and Margaret Van Oord were on their way to help. The village declared a state of emergency on March 23, after the St. John River overflowed its banks, flooding the hospital, municipal buildings, homes and businesses.
Van Oord, a volunteer area manager for the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC), organized volunteers to strip down affected buildings.
"We take out everything from your belly button down," Van Oord says, "back to the bare studs, and we spray it against mould.
"Later, you get organizations like Mennonite Disaster Service who send their volunteers, and they will rebuild it again," he says.
Logistics and collaboration
Cooperation between organizations is a hallmark of Canadian response to crises within their own shores.
When over a thousand homes in Northern Ontario and Manitoba were hit by contaminated drinking water in 2011, Mission Aviation Fellowship flew in representatives of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and others to assess the situation.
Mission Aviation Fellowship Canada began its Wings to Northern Canada program two years ago to help other organizations and First Nations churches reach remote areas of the country.
"We started out based out of Steinbach flying into the north here, serving some of the organizations that are working in the First Nations communities up there," says Willie Enns, MAFC's director of operations and ministry partnership.
"It's mainly the logistics of transporting workers that are having a hard time otherwise connecting and getting to the right places."
Enns recalls one incident in which an MAF plane responded to a mourning community in Garden Hill, Manitoba after three youths drowned in a boating accident. "The plane happened to be up in God's River right [around] that same time. The pilot was able to transport a whole plane of food that was donated from the God's River community for the families that were mourning through that period."
Laying the groundwork
Planning ahead is a key component of effective disaster response, says Rick Shirran of the Salvation Army.
This spring, heavy rains in Thunder Bay, Ontario, shut down the water treatment plant. Sewage was backed up in over 1,000 homes. Many had up to three feet of sewage flowing into their basements, causing serious concerns about contamination. The Salvation Army, the Red Cross and Mennonite Disaster Service helped provide lodging and food.
The Salvation Army offers a course to train congregations in how to respond in a disaster, and stresses the importance of developing community relationships beforehand.
"A disaster is not the time to be passing around your business card," Shirran says.
The Salvation Army has agreements in place to work collaboratively with MDS, CRWRC, and the Seventh Day Adventists. As well as working with other faith-based agencies, these groups network and collaborate with governments and other social agencies.
After years of informal cooperation, the CRWRC, Samaritan's Purse and MDS signed a formal agreement earlier this year to share information, to work together and to support each other.
"Each of us is strong in different areas," explains Bill Adams, director of disaster response services of the CRWRC. "For instance, Samaritan's Purse is very strong in initial clean-up work. CRWRC and MDS are both there for the long term recovery process."
Janet Plenert, Canadian manager for Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) echoes the emphasis on working together. "You want to be as cohesive and collaborative as possible," she says. "So we are trying to respect the networks and build those relationships in advance.
"Helping others in need and in time of crisis is just a basic response of our Christian faith," she adds.
Adams gives the example of last year's devastating fires in Slave Lake, Alberta. The province provided some assistance for homes damaged by the fires, but not for the floods that followed them.
"It is almost invariably families with elderly people or with someone who is ill or handicapped who needs our help," he says.
Plenert agrees, "Our focus is on people who fall between the cracks, people who are uninsured or underinsured, or who have no savings. People who will be knocked out by the crisis."
Sometimes one of the biggest impacts these organizations can have is just by showing that the 'Body of Christ' cares.
Among those responding to disaster in Canada, all agree that there is an ongoing need to remind victims of God's presence in the midst of hardship. Shirran adds that "there are times when people are so vulnerable and they need to know that God is there. We're there to be the hands and the feet and the ears of God."