Western Pa. volunteers heed call for Sandy disaster relief

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After any disaster, the United Methodist Church is among many groups that swiftly send supplies, staff and trained volunteers.

So Dawn Lynn Check, communications director for the denomination's Western Pennsylvania Conference, was shocked Thursday to find that the headquarters of the United Methodist Committee on Relief was itself a casualty of superstorm Sandy.

"They were among the displaced workers, and their communications director was posting pictures on Facebook of trees down on the sidewalk in front of their office," she said.

That didn't stop local United Methodists from quickly assembling and shipping more than 1,800 flood buckets -- tubs stocked with supplies to clean filth and debris from homes. The first 300 went to West Virginia, where many families are displaced from power outages and storm damage. The rest went to the East Coast.

Western Pennsylvania has sent more than 10 percent of the 16,000 buckets that United Methodists have distributed in five states affected by Sandy.

How to donate

A guide to many relief organizations and opportunities is at www.nvoad.org.

To give to groups in this story:

American Red Cross: 1-800-RED CROSS or text REDCROSS to 90999 to give $10

Brother's Brother Foundation: 1200 Galveston Ave., Pittsburgh 15233 or www.brothersbrother.org

Mennonite Disaster Service: 583 Airport Road, Lititz, PA 17543 or 1-717-735-3536

Salvation Army: 1-800-SAL-ARMY or text STORM to 80888 to give $10

Southern Baptist Convention: 1-866-407-6262

United Methodist Committee on Relief (local): 1-800-886-3382 or diane.miller@wpaumc.org or take donation to nearby United Methodist Church. List of needed items at www.wpaumc.org

World Vision: Text GIVEUSA to 777444 to give $10

"We are getting our churches organized to fill the need for more," Ms. Check said.

Local, regional and state organizations are sending workers into the destruction zone but currently want only trained volunteers who can perform specific duties without running afoul of downed wires or floating toxins. The Pennsylvania State Police has sent 108 troopers and officers into New Jersey to help prevent looting. The Western Pennsylvania Chapter of the American Red Cross has dispatched more than 30 volunteers and staff to assist in East Coast shelters.

Private organizations, many of them sponsored by religious groups, do a great deal of the hands-on recovery work.

"Volunteers from the faith-based groups will be requested to do house-to-house disaster assessments along the coastline and in New York because, while the Red Cross and Salvation Army can do the initial mass sheltering and FEMA can provide some funds for recovery, when it comes to helping individuals it falls to the volunteer organizations to provide the services and resources," said the Rev. Donald Green, executive director of Christian Associates of Southwestern Pennsylvania and a member of Pennsylvania Volunteers Organizations Active in Disasters, which coordinates relief efforts.

The Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh is among the religious bodies that will take up a collection this weekend for Sandy victims.

But there is also hands-on work under way. This afternoon volunteers from UPMC will assemble 500 emergency kits with hygiene supplies for Sandy survivors at World Vision's distribution center in Glenfield. World Vision, a global Christian humanitarian organization, distributed blankets, winter clothing and food to victims of the storm, but some supplies it pre-positioned in the Bronx were destroyed by flooding.

To avoid such problems, Brother's Brother, a nonsectarian relief organization based on the North Side that specializes in transportation, set up a supply base in Virginia. Prior to the storm there had been concern that Pittsburgh itself could suffer damage that would interfere with trucking, said Brother's Brother president, Luke Hingson.

So far, Brother's Brother has shipped four tractor-trailer loads of emergency supplies to New York.

"The tunnels were closed, wires were down on the road, the traffic lights were out and fuel was out," he said.

Although West Virginia's Snowstorm Sandy got little national publicity, major relief groups are operating there. The Salvation Army is running shelters and has provided food, blankets and even toboggans to snowbound residents.

The Southern Baptist Convention runs one of the nation's largest disaster relief organizations, with 85,000 trained volunteers and 15 mobile kitchens that are supplying 400,000 meals per day. Two kitchens are in Summersville and Buckhannon, W.Va.

"In most cases these are people without power who just cannot cook. But we also have situations where trees have fallen on houses and people are out of their homes," said the Rev. Terry Harper, executive director of The West Virginia Convention of Southern Baptists.

"We also have individual pastors who have taken people in and are providing emergency housing, so we are supplying them with food and money."

If congregations in Western Pennsylvania want to assist a community struck by Sandy, they can join with a Southern Baptist congregation that is providing relief in the affected zone. Donor congregations of any denomination are welcome, but all receiving congregations are Southern Baptist because those are the only ones the convention monitors to ensure they are delivering aid properly, said Mike Ebert, vice president for communications at the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board. The churches will help any victims, he said.

"Just like our disaster relief units, we are there to help everyone. We don't ask people what faith they are," he said.

One of the first relief groups into West Virginia was Mennonite Disaster Services, whose North American headquarters is near Lancaster, Pa. It sent a generator that is still running the water treatment plant for a small community in Fayette County, W.Va.

The Mennonites, half of whose volunteers are Canadian farmers, specialize in immediate cleanup and long-term rebuilding of homes.

"On the East Coast we are setting up on Staten Island, mucking out basements, removing drywall and insulation. So that will be a long-term project," said Kevin King, executive director of Mennonite Disaster Services.

"In the midst of all of this we have six locations where we are still rebuilding from 2011 and 2012," he said. "This morning I had a call from a fellow at a community foundation in Birmingham, Ala., which had the tornadoes in April of last year. He said, 'Please don't tell me you will pull out of here because of Sandy.' I said no, we are committed to stay."


Ann Rodgers: arodgers@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416.


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