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Interview: Jim Burton, NAMB Director of Volunteer Mobilization

( [email protected] ) Sep 29, 2004 01:30 AM EDT

About 600 Southern Baptist Disaster Relief volunteers from 10 states were in various stages of deployment to Florida’s east coast Sept. 27 in the wake of Hurricane Jeanne –- the fourth hurricane to hit the Sunshine State in the past six weeks. In the wake of Hurricanes Charley, Frances and Ivan, nearly 6,000 Southern Baptist Disaster Relief volunteers have helped prepare more than 1.6 million meals and completed nearly 5,000 cleanup and recovery projects. In a recent interview with the Christian Post, Jim Burton, the Director of Volunteer Mobilization for the North American Mission Board, spoke on Sept. 27 of the current efforts that the Southern Baptist agency is currently involved in and also mentioned its future plans for areas affected by the storms. The following are excerpts taken from the interview:

What kind of services has the SBC Disaster Relief Agency provided so far in response to the recent hurricanes?

This is our 51st operational day, which means we’ve been working on-site and off-site for 51 consecutive days beginning with preparations for Hurricane Charley. Some of our statistics through Sept. 26 include Volunteer Days - 36,587. Our meals-prepared through Sept. 26 is 1.8 million meals. We’ve completed 5,200 chainsaw jobs, where we go in house by house and cut down from the debris and remove that from the yard. We’ve served 302 children in our mobile child-care units. These trailers have diaper changing stations, and bins with toys in them. We usually keep the children while parents are filling out paper work. And we’ve done 3,000 loads of laundry. We go in with trailers that have washers and dryers in them. We’ve also provided nearly 23,000 hot showers. We have trailers that typically have six stalls on them with hot water, air conditioning, heaters and sometimes washers and dryers. Those are the main services we’ve provided so far. We’re now getting ramped up for response to Jeanne. We hope to be feeding by lunch tomorrow, and certainly by supper tomorrow on the Florida East Coast.

What more can you say about SBC Disaster Relief?

This is about the 35th year of SBC disaster relief. We are generally considered the third largest disaster relief organization in North America, behind the American Red Cross and The Salvation Army. We have national letters of agreement with each organization and have a very good, close-working relationship with them. We have 498 mobile disaster units available throughout North America. These are owned by our state convention, associations and some churches. And we manage the flow of those out of the disaster operation center in Atlanta at the North American Mission Board.

Besides the 98 mobile units, we also have 28,500 trained volunteers. Our real strength is the people. We’ve been working in two American Red Cross kitchens and one Salvation Army kitchen because they were short of volunteers. And we’ve also, for the first time, been involved with driving American Red Cross ERVs (Emergency Response Vehicles). We’ve been involved with some of these new phases of the disaster response and really it comes down to our strength being our people.

The work that SBC Disaster Relief has been involved in is quite amazing.

Yes, this is an amazing operation. But we’re certainly not the only faith-based group involved in disaster relief. There are many other denominations and some other para-church organizations that do this. It’s a really interesting environment. Things that sometimes are a problem on a normal day aren’t a problem in a disaster. You work with other Christians and sometimes other civic organizations just to get the job done. The objective is to get into an affected area to bring as much normalcy as quickly as possible back to people’s lives. We want to help them stabilize, and whenever possible we hope to help them with spiritual issues. We also send in chaplains with mobile units. They watch over our volunteers, go into the community and begin to debrief people who have been traumatized by disaster. That’s another service that we offer.

Have you had a chance to visit any of the disaster areas so far?

I have been tied down to our disaster operation center in Atlanta. I’m sitting in a room looking at five large screens projecting information. There are 25 desks and computers and telephones in this room, and most of those are manned today. This is like an op-center. That’s basically what we have here. We have an operation center. We’ve already had a two-and-a-half hour conference call today with the American Red Cross; we just had a 45-minute conference call with our state conventions. As much as possible, we try to manage the flow of units, the reporting, the trouble-shooting—do as much as we can to make things easier on the field. Although, even today we’ve been telling our units that the logistics are going to be hard and they’ll have to figure out a lot of stuff on their own once they get there. Usually there’s a great deal of confusion in the early stages of disasters and it takes a while to establish logistic reports.

Around what regions of the U.S. have most of the volunteers come from?

Many of them are from the Southeast U.S., but we’ve also brought volunteers in from California, Washington, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Illinois.

I know that in disasters such as this, funding tends to be an issue. How has it been so far for the agency?

First of all, Southern Baptists, at least on the national level, don’t budget for disaster response. We do have disaster relief in our budget, but most of that is related to training and an annual national conference that we sponsor called the Disaster Relief Roundtable. We don’t actually budget for disaster response. And so as much as anything we do in Southern Baptist life, this is a faith-ministry. We’re only able to respond according to the money given to us. And thus far in this disaster, NAMB has probably received about $400,000. We had some offerings over the last couple of years through a youth mobilization initiative called World Changers, which is a ministry that rehabs substandard housing. We’ve already released $300,000 of that money to Florida, and today I’m authorizing another $150,000 from recent gifts going to Alabama. So it doesn’t take long for the money to hit the field. The money that comes to us, typically goes through us and to the field. One of the advantages of contributing to Southern Baptist Disaster Relief is that 100 percent of the money goes to disaster relief. We don’t pay the light bill here at the NAMB. It doesn’t pay for my salary or my staff’s salary, which is covered by another budget. We’re in a unique position because, frankly, disaster relief is not NAMB’s primary ministry. Our overhead is already covered. When people donate through us, it goes directly to disaster relief.

Considering that relief efforts may require long-term commitments, do you see funding as a future obstacle?

Funding is an issue. Thus far we think we’re in a position where we have enough funding to cover our expenses. Here’s what happens though. What it boils down to is that the more people trust you with their funding the more you can do on the field. For instance, once we get past this initial response stage, we’ll go into long-term recovery. Southern Baptists will typically be in an area for two to five years following an event like this helping to rebuild houses and churches and whatever we’re asked to do and that takes funding. That’s something that can come from different places, but we need support to manage those processes and also from time to time we need building materials. So the more people entrust us with their gifts, the more we’re able to do. And I think we’ve got a good track record to show people what we’re capable of doing.

What is the agency’s current schedule for the relief efforts?

Right now we’re continuing the Ivan operation, although it’s beginning to slow down as the recovery is picking up. Even as I speak, we have about 11 units en route to eastern Florida and a number of others on standby. Basically what we’re doing is closing down one operation and ramping up another. We’ve already evacuated Florida twice. We had about 200 units down there for Charley. We had to pull everything out., Then Frances went across, and we went back with about 100 units. In less than a week we had to pull them out again and went to the Atlanta Motor Speedway where they waited for Ivan to come through. Now we’ve gone into Ivan. We didn’t have to evacuate the Ivan operation but what we’ve had to do was shut down kitchens over there as well as bring in new kitchens and move them into the east coast and get ready for that. As far as I’m concerned, we’re in this for the long haul. We intend to be there until the electricity’s back on and we know that there’s no need for our meal services. And then of course the recovery phase will go even further, and I’m talking about the chain-saw work we do, cutting down the debris. But eventually we will slide into a long-term recovery mode.

Having provided almost non-stop relief through four storms must certainly require a lot of endurance on the part of the volunteer staff. How has it been for them?

It has gone well, we’ve come a cross plenty of challenges, but the people are faithful and persistent and stay focused on the task. God honors that and allows good things to happen, and we get a chance to experience His pleasure. That’s the joy in it. We’re reminded that it is a greater blessing to give than it is to receive and our volunteers experience that all the time.

Since Aug. 1, Southern Baptists have given nearly $400,000 to NAMB to help cover the costs of this unprecedented disaster relief response. Contributions to offset direct costs of the disaster relief response may be sent to state conventions, associations or churches responding to the effort, or to the North American Mission Board. NAMB contributions may be made online at www.namb.net/disasterrelief or mailed to North American Mission Board, P.O. Box 116543, Atlanta, Ga., 30368-6543.

For regular updates on Southern Baptist Disaster Relief efforts, visit www.namb.net/dr.