MDS stretches to keep up as severe weather strikes

Jun 17, 2019 by and

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

From tornadoes and hurricanes to rain that seemed to fall for 40 days and 40 nights, many areas experienced severe weather in the first half of 2019. Mennonite Disaster Service is tracking it all and investigating how to help in both the short and long terms.

Mennonite Disaster Service volunteers clean up damage from an EF-1 tornado that hit Pendleton, Ind., May 27. About 75 homes were damaged by the storm, which sustained winds of about 100 mph and advanced into Ohio, where it and other storms caused 5 million people to lose power. — Darin Bontrager/MDS

Mennonite Disaster Service volunteers clean up damage from an EF-1 tornado that hit Pendleton, Ind., May 27. About 75 homes were damaged by the storm, which sustained winds of about 100 mph and advanced into Ohio, where it and other storms caused 5 million people to lose power. — Darin Bontrager/MDS

MDS has been coordinating local responses to flooding in South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska and Oklahoma.

“In these types of responses you don’t mobilize and set up a camp like a traditional project; it’s drive-in type things,” said Jeff Koller, a regional operations coordinator for the central United States. “The Nebraska unit members spent a lot of time going back and forth to Wood River, Nebraska, mucking out, doing chain-saw work with downed trees, but mostly it was cleaning out first floors and basements.”

The Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations in South Dakota were hit especially hard when record snows melted rapidly in an unseasonably warm March, inundating rivers downstream in Iowa and Nebraska. Two months later when Koller visited in late May, many portions of the reservations were still inaccessible.

“Multiple highways still have water over the roads. There’s just water everywhere,” he said June 7 by phone from Texas, where he was checking in on rebuilding work from 2017’s Hurricane Harvey. “It’s hurting the folks in Pine Ridge especially, where unemployment was already 88 to 89 percent.

“People can’t get out. People who are employed are stranded now. They’re taking stuff in by boat.”

The Oklahoma MDS unit was monitoring the Arkansas River south of Tulsa, waiting for water to stop rising so they could get to work. To the east, all that water works its way down the Mississippi River, where drainage infrastructure in the delta is backed up.

MDS regional operations coordinator Darin Bontrager, who works out of northern Indiana, said the river was too high to drain these systems, causing water to back up into communities in Louisiana and Mississippi.

“There are homes in the Mississippi delta in northwest Mississippi that are underwater, and they predict it won’t go down until mid-July if it doesn’t stop raining,” he said. “So there are some communities they predict will be flooded for 125 to 150 days, but we can’t get to them yet.”

Short term, long term

Bontrager’s region, which runs from Michigan down to Florida, has provided multiple opportunities for tornado cleanup. Volunteers have cleaned up damage from tornadoes that hit Columbus, Miss., and Lee County, Ala., as well as tornadoes from Memorial Day weekend storms that hit Indiana and Ohio.

That comes in addition to long-term recovery rebuilding work replacing homes destroyed by a 2018 tornado in Meridian, Miss., and Hurricane Michael, a category 5 storm that hit Mariana, Fla., last year.

“There’s just been a lot of tornadoes this year,” Bontrager said June 10 by phone from the Florida panhandle. “And the thing is, there have been a lot of tornadoes throughout here in region 2 and also in regions 3 and 4 that have been above and beyond our capacity to respond. So the need is greater than what MDS can get involved in, but we try to get involved where we can.”

In his region to the west, Koller investigated damage from the tornado that hit the Jefferson City, Mo., area. While MDS took part in chain-saw and cleanup work to ensure homes are safe and secure, the organization determined its long-term rebuilding work would not be necessary because the damage was confined to relatively affluent and insured properties.

MDS works with local long-term recovery committees to determine needs, prioritizing vulnerable people with unmet needs who lack the resources or ability to fix their home or move.

That long-term recovery will continue to be a key part of MDS’s work.

“There’s been an increase in the number of events in the last three to five years in both quantity and severity,” Bontrager said. “But . . . [needs that exceed capacity have] always been a reality for us, since we’re such a small organization.”

Koller agreed that recent weather events are more severe.

“It’s wetter longer; it’s stayed colder longer. It just stretches our resources that much thinner,” he said. “Our volunteers have been tremendous. Last year we fielded more than 5,500 volunteers nationwide. That’s a nice uptick. They’ve been responding to needs, but the needs in the last five years have gotten higher.”


Comments Policy

Mennonite World Review invites readers’ comments on articles. To promote constructive dialogue, editors select the comments that appear, just as we do with letters to the editor in print. These decisions are final. Writers must sign their first and last names; anonymous comments are not accepted. Comments do not appear until approved and are posted during business hours. Comments may be reproduced in print, and may be edited if selected for print.

About Me

advertisement advertisement