Disaster Preparedness & Recovery

Mennonite Disaster Service Works with Communities to Rebuild Lives

The nonprofit’s disaster relief efforts are built upon decades of experience.

Long-term recovery efforts are rife with stories of shady contractors, shoddy construction and vanishing volunteers. Months after a tornado wiped out parts of Joplin, Mo., in 2011, a mother of four was living in a house with broken windows and a disconnected heater as temperatures dropped into the 30s at night. She paid a contractor $8,000 to do repairs but he disappeared before finishing the work.

That kind of fraud was rampant after Hurricane Katrina and happens after other disasters. Following Hurricane Sandy last fall, residents were warned of home repair scams, where “contractors” suggest their work is supported by the federal government when it’s not.

It’s common for well-meaning groups, and some not-so-well-meaning people, to descend upon disaster scenes with a desire to “help.” Often the locals, who’ve just been battered by a storm or other disaster, feel as if they’re being told what to do, how to do it and why by outsiders, only to be left with less than desirable results in the end.

Maybe that’s what makes the stories about the Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) seem exaggerated, almost corny. But anyone in the throes of a long-term recovery project could heed what the MDS has learned over the last 60-plus years.

It goes above and beyond. Its volunteers blend in. They become part of the family. They do what is asked and ask for nothing. And they do great work. That’s what you hear about the Mennonites, who since 1950 have made it part of their lives to help rebuild others’ lives.

Like the West End in New Iberia, La., already hit hard by blight and now ravaged from hurricanes Katrina and Rita and left to rebuild on its own. Mennonites built new homes there for residents who hadn’t seen new homes constructed in decades. In fact, following the hurricanes, about half of the 6,000 who volunteered to rebuild Louisiana were Mennonites, according to Lorna Bourg, co-founder and president of Southern Mutual Help Association.

“There’s not a chance in hell that we would have been able to recover the coastal communities of Louisiana without the Mennonite Disaster Service as a partner,” she said. “And in a subdivision east of us, in St. Mary Parish, they built three homes from scratch for special needs families. It
was really quite amazing.”

The MDS had a “huge” impact on 11 parishes in Louisiana and contributed to rebuilding more than a thousand units, including houses, churches and businesses. “We had a lot of volunteers from churches and colleges and community groups, but the Mennonites were the real builders,” said Bourg. They do “everything from A to Z.” 

The “Z” might be diving in brackish waters to find cement blocks that delineate exactly where the property lines are, which is what one Mennonite did. “You couldn’t locate the corner block so he began diving down in the water for like a week,” Bourg said. “It’s mucky mud.”

Brenda Phillips, professor at Oklahoma State University and a researcher at the university’s Center for the Study of Disasters and Extreme Events, has watched the MDS rebuild communities hit with disasters since the Coalinga, Calif., earthquake in 1983. She said the organization’s approach in getting communities back on their feet is one to be emulated. The MDS takes things slowly and asks about needs. It suggests that what has worked in other communities might work again. And its volunteers build relationships.

“They walk it slowly and sort of let their actions speak for themselves,” Phillips said. MDS volunteers will meet with members of a local long-term recovery committee to discuss what help is needed and who needs it. They go into a disaster area looking for “meaningful work,” which means helping people who are uninsured, underinsured or those who wouldn’t get home without help.

“When they set up a project site,  usually they’ll do short-term repairs, clean up, pick up debris. In Joplin they rounded up turkeys that had gotten away from a turkey farm. They’ll do anything.”

Jim McKay  |  Editor

Jim McKay is the editor of Emergency Management. He lives in Orangevale, Calif., with his wife, Christie, daughter, Ellie, and son, Ronan. He relaxes by fly fishing on the Truckee River for big, wild trout. Jim can be reached at jmckay@emergencymgmt.com.

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