1998 NCC News Archives

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CWS Coordinates Faith-Based Response to Florida Wildfires

Who We Are, What We Do

CWS works in more than 70 countries, including the U.S., in disaster relief, human development and refugee assistance. It is a ministry of the National Council of Churches, the nation’s preeminent ecumenical organization, which includes 34 Protestant and Orthodox member communions with a combined membership of nearly 52 million.

How to Help

Contact CHURCH WORLD SERVICE, Attn. Florida Wildfires, #976231, P.O. Box 968, Elkhart, IN 46515. Phone pledges or credit card donations: 1-800-762-0968.

NEW YORK, July 17, 1998 ---- Even though needed rain soaked Florida over the weekend, the situation in areas affected by this month’s wildfires continues to remain uncertain and Church World Service (CWS) is helping to put programs into place that will provide for long-term emotional, spiritual and economic needs.

"Flickers of flame and chimneys of smoke are still visible as one drives through Flagler County," reported Disaster Response Specialist Jody Hill of Lutheran Disaster Response and Florida Interfaiths Networking in Disaster (FIND) /Florida Council of Churches – a CWS partner. Ms. Hill recently brought religious leaders together to discuss a faith-based strategy and has performed a damage assessment. "These fires, though remaining ‘contained’ by rain, fire-fighting and state-of-the-art technology, are all but impossible to extinguish, or even access. Residents remain alarmed and traumatized."

"It is clear that this is a community which has lost its sense of trust, its sense of security," Ms. Hill explained. "This is a community in terror. But this community has not lost its ‘sense of community.’ I continue to be impressed by the commitment and involvement of faith groups."

CWS is helping to develop such faith-based recovery programs, which emphasize case work, advocacy and spiritual care, particularly for people whose rebuilding and replanting needs will go unmet by federal assistance. CWS is seeking $100,000 from its member communions to initiate the kind of coordinated effort necessary for a sustained interfaith response.

Ms. Hill explained that initial recovery efforts by the faith community have been carried out by individual churches and denominations but as unmet recovery needs continue to surface, a sustained interfaith response will be necessary. Long-term recovery takes time and includes spiritual and emotional healing as well as physical rebuilding, she said.

Based on a preliminary damage assessment, Ms. Hill recommended that an inter-religious recovery effort focus on:

  • Development of local interfaith recovery programs focused on case work.
  • Case worker training.
  • Workshops for clergy on long-term spiritual care.
  • Legal assistance and insurance advocacy for disaster survivors.
  • Mitigation efforts including education, rebuilding and replanting.

Ms. Hill and CWS Disaster Resource Consultant Paul Binder already have been involved in "Equip the Caregiver" workshops.

"The reality of the devastation, viewing it first hand, is beyond words," Ms. Hill said. "Pictures cannot do justice to the experience of seeing and smelling these remains. I empathize with these families’ losses."

Despite the wide geographic range of the fires, only 367 homes and 33 businesses were damaged, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA stressed that the longer-term economic impact of the disaster will be ongoing drought conditions and loss to businesses from closures.

However, in addition to housing and commercial buildings, the fires have damaged citrus fruit trees and continue to threaten the state’s peanut crop – posing potential long-term economic problems.

The losses are particularly difficult for those in rural areas, where many residents live in mobile homes, are uninsured and live miles from a fire department. Ms. Hill stressed that the unmet needs in Florida are likely to be considerable and that much depends on whether or not there is sustained cooler, wetter weather. "Without significant rains, these initial losses could be only a sample of what Florida could be facing," Ms. Hill said.

Ms. Hill also reported that people affected by the fires "have difficulty thinking about mid-term and long-term recovery efforts" because "fires have a different kind of physical, psychological, and spiritual effect than do hurricanes, tornadoes or floods."

Jody Hill can be reached at: (352) 796-6921; (352) 799-3295 (fax); (407) 353-6275 (cellular); jodyhill@juno.com (e-mail).


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