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The back yard of a house with water and debris.The back yard of a house with water and debris.

Flooding from Hurricane Florence in Lumberton, NC.

Even before Hurricane Florence made landfall on September 14 at 7:15 a.m. in Wilmington, North Carolina, Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) was quietly gearing up a response that will range from damage assessments to long-term home rebuilds. In simpler terms, MDS brings hope to storm survivors who have been through the wringer – a hope reflected in donors and volunteers alike.

Larry Stoner, an MDS regional operations coordinator, started making calls from his home base in Pennsylvania before Florence even hit. He is part of a seasoned MDS team that has, collectively through the organization’s 68 years of existence, honed a response as sophisticated as it is compassionate.

Stoner has contacts in the Federal Emergency Management Agency, in state and national Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster networks, in county emergency management who can tell him what’s happening on the ground.

“My existing contacts are very helpful and valuable at a time like this,” Stoner explained. “It takes many phone calls and an investigation team on the ground to see the damage and identify a site for accommodations for volunteers and jobs for them to do.”

Volunteers who just “show up” after a disaster – with no place to stay, no tools or supplies, and no training – often risk being a burden on the very community they are trying to help. MDS’s trained Early Response Teams (ERTs) are sent only when floodwaters recede and the disaster site is safe for them to muck out houses, tarp roofs, and help with cleanup.

Already, assessments indicate long-term recovery in North Carolina will take years. Some forecasters are calling Florence the wettest tropical system to ever hit North Carolina, with some communities reporting nearly three feet of rain.  Long after Florence has left the headlines, MDS will be rebuilding homes.

Powering MDS

MDS is powered by people – some who donate funds, others who swing a hammer, and, on Sept. 19, some who volunteered to answer phones at a telethon for MDS in partnership with ABC27, a local Harrisburg news channel.

The telethon raised more than $202,000 with help from private and corporate partners who provided $97,000 in matching funds. Checks are still coming in.

As volunteer Frances Hillenbrand paused between answering phones, the Lititz resident reflected that a volunteer doesn’t have to be at a disaster site to contribute. “It’s important for me to be here because I can’t be there,” she said. “I’ve worked in flood-torn area before and I know what that’s like. I know how it paralyzes people. It takes months and years for them to recover. I’m so glad I live so close to MDS so I can give something back.”

Another volunteer, Tim Heller, felt strongly that he wanted to respond to Hurricane Florence. “I’d love to be the boots on the ground but the need came up here, so I’ve been talking to people who want to help, and being part of their community.”

MDS Executive Director Kevin King said the telethon was an “amazing feat of team effort” that will not only change the lives of those affected by Hurricane Florence, but the lives of those who volunteered to help. “The whole community was impacted,” he said. “One volunteer on the phone talked with a donor for 30 minutes. That donor just wanted to talk, and she gave $5, and said she wanted to give more.”

MDS has a long history of responding to hurricanes. Volunteers spent seven years rebuilding homes along the Gulf Coast after hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. In 2016, when Hurricane Matthew struck Princeville, North Carolina and other communities, MDS responded immediately and over the long haul.

Over the years, King said he has come to redefine the word “respond.”

“Often we think of the response in terms of hammer and nails, because MDS rebuilds homes,” King said. “But responding in Christian love is also witnessed in a volunteer at a telethon who takes time to listen to someone they’ve never met. Responding in Christian love is witnessed in an online donation, an IRA gift, a bequest, a check, a dollar, or a child walking in here with her piggy bank.”

To donate:

Visit mds.mennonite.net

Send a check to: Mennonite Disaster Service, 583 Airport Rd, Lititz, PA 17543

Written by Susan Kim

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