Last One Standing: What Does It Mean?

By Joe Webb

By Rev. Jack Lipphardt,
WVUMC Disaster Recovery Director

Keeping with UMCOR’s promise of “first in and last out,” our West Virginia United Methodist Disaster Recovery Ministry is still providing much-needed help for survivors of the storms and flood disaster of June, 2016. Other partners, particularly those with funding to help with construction materials and supplies, are no longer active.

We need to raise $500,000 across the Conference in the Bishop’s Appeal for Disaster Recovery to match our newly announced two-for-one commitment of $1million from UMCOR. Much work remains throughout the disaster region, and The UMC nearly stands alone.

Very simply and directly, survivors who are not eligible for other assistance (e.g., WV RISE) have nowhere to turn but to the West Virginia United Methodist Church. We are now in the third year of recovery in what was forecast as a 4-5-year recovery period.

Early after the storms and flood, many organizations had a “flood” of donations and volunteers. And now, our faith-based and non-profit partners have exhausted their resources for unmet needs.

Unmet needs are those requirements to help a survivor family have a safe, sanitary, secure dwelling once FEMA or flood insurance benefits or personal family savings are exhausted.

For many, the maximum FEMA grant of $33,000 is insufficient to replace a home that had been destroyed. For others, flood insurance has compulsory “forced payoff” conditions that means that the homeowner’s mortgage would be paid first before any other benefit goes to the homeowner. Survivor families no longer had mortgages, but neither did they have homes nor the means to secure a dwelling.

Some unmet needs were simple: replacing the washer and dryer would be all the family needed for recovery. For others, the unmet need was substantial for rehabilitation of a heavily damaged home or for construction of a new home, including furniture and appliances to replace that which was totally lost or destroyed.

A reminder about the people we serve: our priorities have been “Tier 3” and “Tier 4” families with complex issues of extreme damage if not total loss of the home, poverty, and extenuating matters such as elderly, disabled elderly or children living in the home.

One of my tasks as director of recovery from the 2016 disaster has been to attend and participate with each of the Long-Term Recovery Groups (or Committees) representing each of the 12 counties in the federally declared disaster zone. Among responsibilities of the LTRGs is funding for unmet needs. I sat at each unmet needs table to consider formal case presentations for client families and to offer, case by case, funding to buy needed materials, often used by volunteer work teams.

It quickly became clear that some LTRGs were strong with considerable resources (e.g., Greenbrier and Kanawha counties) while others were in pre-disaster distressed regions with fewer resources (e.g., Clay, Roane, Nicholas, and Fayette). Recognizing this, we agreed, along with the WV National Guard, the Governor’s office, and WV VOAD (Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster), to convene a statewide unmet needs committee so that funders that had larger areas of eligibility for funding might better address strong needs in areas with limited or no resources. That is, local congregations or regional United Way organizations might have funds available for a limited geographical area while others, such as American Red Cross, Catholic Charities, and The UMC were better able to respond across the region, especially in resource-limited counties. We pressed disaster case managers to go first to the local LTRG unmet needs table before coming to the statewide table.

Fast forward to now. Most LTRGs have disbanded after their funds were gone. Regional United Ways have spent available donations. American Red Cross exhausted its funds for this disaster. Ecumenical partners no longer have funds available. With the exception of VOAD (which has a limited disaster relief fund) we’re it. We’re still here. We’re the last ones standing.

Beyond the funding issue, VOAD’s disaster case management program, funded by FEMA, ended June 1, meaning that our UM disaster case managers are the only ones remaining. Some ecumenical or secular volunteer work teams still come to the region, but often they are coordinating their efforts with our recovery ministry and with our construction coordinators. Thankfully, our Mennonite Disaster Service construction volunteers remain important partners. As WV RISE gets moving thanks to the willingness of VOAD and the WV National Guard to pick it up, clients who had been on hold and now are discovered to be ineligible because of federal and state rules are being referred to us.

We made the promise of our Church at the outset, consistent with the mission of UMCOR, that we would remain for “as long as it takes.” Our bishop and our recovery staff are committed to UMCOR’s “first in, last out” pledge, and we are grateful to UMCOR for the new grant that keeps us going. But we need substantial contributions to match the grant. And we need volunteer work teams throughout the region.

In behalf of survivor families, we thank you!

If you have not already done so, please be sure your congregation promotes this need. Please identify a Sunday for a special offering for the Bishop’s Appeal for Disaster Recovery. If you have a heart for disaster recovery, please make a generous personal gift.