Hurricane Recovery Update: Case Management Begins in Louisiana

Mark Lambert
April 27, 2021
On Sunday, April 25th, dozens gathered together inside St. Luke-Simpson United Methodist Church for a meeting with members of the Conference Office Missional Engagement and Outreach team. 

The team included Rev. Elaine Burleigh, Director, Rev. Karli Pidgeon, District Superintendent, several of the new case managers, and members of the Fuller Center Disaster Rebuilders, the Conference construction partner for relief efforts in southwest Louisiana. 

The purpose of the meeting was to communicate to clergy and lay members of churches in southwest Louisiana the Conference strategy for disaster recovery following the 2020 hurricane season. They also gathered to listen to the concerns of those impacted by the storm and to invite them into a partnership for disaster recovery. 

"The most creative solutions are often found through courageous conversations," said Burleigh. "We shared with the group the disaster response work the Conference has done since the storms and discussed our plans for the long-term recovery in the area.  We also listened to the questions, the frustrations, and suggestions that arose from the group.  The conversation about how best to respond to the needs of survivors must - and will - continue. With the help of those who live in the disaster zone, we plan to evaluate and improve our response to disasters so that our efforts can be better coordinated, communicated, and implemented."

How You Can Help

The road to recovery has been a long one in southwest Louisiana. 

On August 27, Hurricane Laura’s 150 mile-per-hour winds plowed through southwest Louisiana and uprooted homes and lives from the Sabine to the Atchafalaya. Six weeks and one day later, Hurricane Delta barreled through the same area, sucker-punching a community that already was on its knees.

In a disaster, help can never arrive too soon, and there’s never enough assistance to meet all the needs.

But how does one even begin to mount a timely and adequate recovery and relief effort in the wake of back-to-back major hurricanes that pounded one corner of a state? Where does one start when the entire state has been declared a disaster area? And how does that work in the middle of a global pandemic that precludes most face-to-face interactions and, frankly, has left the disaster relief cupboard fairly bare?

These are just some of the questions facing Elaine Burleigh, director of the Louisiana Conference’s Office of Missional Engagement and Outreach.

She hears the other questions, too, such as 'Why hasn’t the Louisiana Conference done more?' and 'Where are you?'

Elaine has answers, served with a healthy dose of reality.

“In previous disasters, the Louisiana Conference had ample resources to go big and do everything we possibly could to address the trauma created by those storms,” Elaine says. “Then we move to 2020, and we have multiple hurricanes and tropical storms in the middle of a pandemic. Our donations have been way down, mostly because of the economic downturn. We have to do significantly more with significantly less.”

Case Management and Volunteer Recruitment

In previous disasters, the Conference responded by offering a wide range of disaster relief services – from case management, donations management, recruiting and deploying volunteers, and rebuilding or repairing damaged homes. With fewer resources available this time, the Conference will focus on just two of the four “traditional” relief services – case management and volunteer recruitment, while partnering with other organizations that will offer donations and construction management.

Case managers work with survivors to identify what they need to recover from the storm, help them develop a realistic recovery plan, connect them with services available through a variety of public and nonprofit agencies, and advocate on their behalf with FEMA, insurance companies and nonprofit groups who have resources to offer.  

The goal is to help survivors repair their homes and return to a normal life. The Conference has hired four full-time case managers who are working with survivors of hurricanes Laura, Delta, and Zeta in both Acadiana and Southwest Louisiana. 

The COVID Interruption

Volunteering in the midst of a pandemic proved to be quite difficult and incredibly challenging.

"United Methodists want to volunteer their time and skills to help Louisiana recover from the storms," says Burleigh. "Volunteering is part of their DNA.  But around the middle of December, our volunteer efforts were put on hold because of COVID.  Now, with the rate of new cases on the decline, we are planning to relaunch our volunteer efforts on May 15th."

The Conference volunteer coordinator has started recruiting volunteer teams from around the country and is working closely with churches to host teams locally.  The Office of Missional Engagement and Outreach also expects to work with local churches in the Lake Charles area to schedule Saturday workdays for individuals, families, and teams to come out and help for the day. 

Burleigh also knows that the work will require significantly more financial resources than the Conference currently has.  “Helping all the survivors who need our help will require more funding - more people donating more money to help more survivors recover.”  

 “There are thousands of survivors who need help, far more than our four case managers can handle.  More funding will allow us to hire more case managers and help more survivors repair their homes.  Donations will change lives.”

"It Takes Community"

Trying to navigate the new reality of disaster relief has been frustrating on many levels. Burleigh is rolling out a new model that addresses the reality of coordinating disaster relief in a pandemic with greatly reduced funding while dealing with the expectations of people who are used to the old model.

 “One of our biggest challenges is getting the message out and explaining why this will look different than it has in the past. Because of Covid and the challenging economic reality, we can’t have as big a footprint as we had after Katrina and even Harvey,” Burleigh explains. “ ‘Early In, Last Out’ is the UMCOR motto but the new reality is ‘Early In, Work Until the Money Runs Out.’”

If there is a silver lining, it’s that “we’ve become better at partnering with other organizations, and that is incredibly important,” Burleigh says. “It takes a community. It takes everyone working together. It’s the only way we’re going to get the work done.”

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