Disaster Myths...and Truths

Date Posted: 5/24/2012

Immediately after a disaster strikes, a funnel cloud of misconception begins to build. That's why, across the nation, UMCOR is working to help church members and disaster responders communicate the truth about appropriate donations, long-term recovery and even the role of the US government in times of disaster.

Below, the top three “disaster myths” cited by responders in disasters of all types and sizes...and the straight story on what really happens.

Myth #1: Disaster survivors need used clothing.

THE TRUTH: They don't. In fact, donations of used clothing inevitably become “the second disaster.” In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, so many truckloads of used clothing arrived so quickly that the onslaught overwhelmed local communities. Bulldozers were eventually used to scrape up mountains of mildewed clothing – along with the various rodents and reptiles living underneath – and deliver them to landfills.

“People have good intentions,” reflected Marji Bishir, disaster response coordinator for the North Texas Conference. “But I would urge church members who want to do something hands-on to assemble UMCOR cleanup buckets. Don't send clothes.”

(For guidelines on assembling cleanup buckets, visit

Myth #2: Disaster recovery takes just a week or two.

THE TRUTH: Recovery can take years. Depending on the size of the disaster, it's far more typical for disaster recovery to take years, not weeks. In parts of upper New York, debris still lines the streets  in towns flooded by Hurricane Irene in August 2011. In Joplin, Missouri, nearly a year after a a tornado wiped out half the city, more than 600 homes are being completely rebuilt, and thousands more homes still need repairs.

In Alabama, more than a year after a record-breaking tornado outbreak, 60 volunteer teams are scheduled for July alone to repair and rebuild homes.

Matt Lacey, Volunteers in Mission coordinator for the North Alabama Conference, said he is determined to better articulate to people how long recovery really takes. “Folks are still shocked when, after a year goes by, there's still work being done. But you can't build house overnight. And you can't meet a family's emotional needs overnight.”

Myth #3: FEMA money will always be there to help.

THE TRUTH: Not always. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) doesn't always make the kind of disaster declaration that releases government money for aid. That means faith-based groups – such as UMCOR – and voluntary agencies will have to address an even greater number of unmet needs within a local community.

In Oklahoma, where tornadoes often strike, state emergency management officials find themselves in the challenging position of toning down people's expectations with regard to FEMA assistance, said Keli Cain, spokesperson for the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management.

“It's almost expected that FEMA assistance will be available,” she said, “but not all events qualify. We always work to try to collect as much data as we can in order to justify getting the federal declaration. But it doesn't always work out.”

Whether or not a FEMA declaration is issued, UMCOR pays special  attention to long-term unmet needs.

“The faith-based and voluntary agencies here in Oklahoma have an amazing network,” said Cain, who was echoing her counterparts in other states as well.

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*Susan Kim is a journalist and a regular contributor to UMCOR.org.

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