Editorial: Be patient: Caring through the complexity of disaster recovery

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I live in North Texas where Hurricane Harvey was a news story almost two years ago. I spent a day in Rockport and Port Aransas this week where Hurricane Harvey is not a news story but still is everyday reality after almost two years.

We still need to care. And we can care by listening and being patient.

Disasters are like falling dominoes …

I listened as two pastors reminisced about their churches gathering for the first time on the first Sunday after Harvey. It was a holiday weekend, and the churches were packed. They said the fellowship was profoundly sweet.

Affordable housing disappeared after Harvey, which meant the majority of the work force left the area. As a result, businesses either couldn’t open or had to reduce their operating hours.

Many weeks later, people chased work crews through their neighborhoods, asking when they would have internet service again.

Another pastor related how emotionally difficult it is to drive onto his property every day and see blue tarps still covering the church’s gym. Complications with insurance, inspectors and engineers has stalled repair work … for nearly two years.

Homeowners still talk about the TWIA line—the line drawn on their walls by the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association. Everything above the line is wind damage and covered by TWIA. Below the line, well, that’s flood damage and someone else’s problem.

When these homeowners contacted their other insurance company—the one through which they had the required flood insurance—they were told the part of their homes below the TWIA line wasn’t covered because it was storm surge, not flood.

… with no end in sight

The two pastors talked about the weeks of imposed curfew and the eeriness of being able to see the stars at night. With no power, everything was dark and quiet … except for the hum of generators. They said it was like something from the last days.

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They talked about the Harvey piles—the debris piled up outside homes, businesses, schools and churches—and the dusting of snow atop the piles the December after Harvey.

In those days, they ate sausages wrapped in tortillas until they were sick of sausages and tortillas. All they wanted was a hamburger, and when Whataburger reopened, the line was down the street. Everyone—rich and poor, the well-off and the down-and-out—was excited about a hamburger.

I noticed how all the oak trees seemed stunted. They all looked ravaged. One of the pastors said people grieved the loss of the trees. The trees were stripped bare by Harvey, and people were happy when they budded again. It gave them a sense of hope.

And then things get complicated

These pastors described how difficult it was immediately following Harvey. People expected the pastors to know what to do and to do something, but the pastors were just as stunned as everyone else. Then there was confusion and poor communication during the early hours of crisis response.

Laborers replaced the residents who left because of Harvey, and many of those laborers were addicted to meth. Almost overnight, the community changed. Now, pastors who needed to repair their own homes in addition to their churches also had to respond to the rise in drug abuse in their communities.

Each agency responding to the disaster had—and still has—its own funding source, set of criteria and scope of work. Some people got lost in the gap between agencies. Others found themselves in the mix of what looked like turf battles. Others simply feel strung along, jumping through each new hoop as it appears.

Churches wanted to help, but helping got complicated. How long should they help? With what resources? Who’s going to provide those resources? Who should receive those resources? What rules govern these kinds of things? What are the city, county, state and federal requirements? What happens when we stop helping? Can we stop helping?

Caring requires patience

I saw fatigue and strain on the pastors’ faces. I heard grief in their voices and their stories. I witnessed the sacred camaraderie of their shared experience, like soldiers back from war—except these pastors aren’t back yet.

We need to pay attention to that. We don’t need to follow the lead of the news cycle and quit caring after compelling stories no longer drive headlines.

There are scores of pastors and churches who need us to keep caring. There are thousands of people who make up their communities who need us to keep caring.

They need us to keep caring through the long and drawn out, mundane and complex task of relief, recovery and rebuilding.

They need us to be compassionate when they are re-traumatized by witnessing events such as when Hurricane Michael hit the Florida panhandle. While many of us saw Michael as just another fascinating news story, Harvey survivors experienced the anxiety of it.

We can care by being patient. Instead of expecting these pastors, churches and communities to be over it, we can give them grace, space and time.

Instead of getting irritated or offended when they are too busy to return our phone calls or fail to show up for our meetings, we can keep in mind that on top of these pastors’ pre-Harvey expectations—funerals, weddings, hospital visits, Sunday services, committee meetings, etc.—they also must live with and respond to the ongoing Harvey-related recovery efforts, some of which are their own homes.

These recovery efforts are profoundly complex. They are full of red tape, seeming disparity, unpleasant surprises. And they’ve drug on—not by each individual’s choosing—for nearly two years and will drag on for the foreseeable future.

We can care enough to cut them some slack. Yes, we can be patient with our brothers and sisters who still are recovering from Harvey.

But it’s not all bad

Harvey changed a lot of lives. A deacon told me about how God used Harvey to change his heart. He once collected guns, but Harvey destroyed all of his guns. When he couldn’t salvage a single one, he realized he shouldn’t store up treasures that rust. Jesus said something like that.

One pastor reflected on how he is more connected to his community because of Harvey. It was as if the hurricane forced him outside of his introverted comfort zone and into involvement in all levels of his community. And that’s not bad.

A church in Port Aransas has become more receptive to the movement of God as a result of Harvey. They’ve learned to trust God deeply. Not only that, but new families have moved to town, able to buy land inexpensively thanks to Harvey, and they’re coming to the church with their kids. And that’s not bad. Not bad at all.

Our taking the time to listen, to take our brothers and sisters seriously, and to be patient with them is not a bad thing either.

Eric Black is the executive director, publisher and editor of the Baptist Standard. He can be reached at eric.black@baptiststandard.com or on Twitter at @EricBlackBSP.

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