Volunteer shortage complicates disaster response

NICK EICHER, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: disaster relief.

It’s remarkable how these natural disasters have come just one after another. First, Hurricane Laura, then Hurricane Sally, and now Tropical Storm Beta and with it the possibility of more flooding in some of those same Gulf Coast communities. 

On the West Coast, many property owners are facing devastation by wildfires.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: With so many disasters to tend to, volunteers are spread thin. But the bigger challenge may be our other national disaster: COVID-19. The majority of volunteers serving with disaster relief ministries are 55 or older. They are the ones most susceptible to severe complications from the disease. And because of that, some have chosen to stay home when the call for help goes out.

EICHER: WORLD correspondent Bonnie Pritchett visited southwest Louisiana a little over a week ago to see how the lack of volunteers has affected the work on the ground.

GREENE: [Paper rustling, AC runs in the background] This is the list of jobs we have in our system now for this area. And we’re up to almost 100 and there’s still a stack back that we haven’t gotten entered yet… 

BONNIE PRITCHETT, REPORTER: Ed Greene, deputy state director for New Mexico Baptist Disaster Relief is looking through a spreadsheet for the address in Vinton, Louisiana, where one of his chainsaw crews is working. 

GREENE: And they’ll do the work and then when they get that one finished, they’ll move on to the next one and the next one. The idea is we’ll work down the list until nothing’s left…

This time, Greene wonders if he’ll run out of volunteers before he runs out of list.

AUDIO: [Chainsaws, car door shutting, and footsteps]

At Robert Walton’s home, the chainsaw crew worked bit by bit to remove a tree that came within a few feet of crashing through the roof. The small group looks like any other disaster relief crew: Mostly retirees. Concerns about contracting the coronavirus or spreading it back home have kept some of Greene’s most loyal volunteers from deploying.

 GREENE: Hello, Larry! Come over and meet this young lady…

Larry Schmidt is the crew boss. He began volunteering for disaster relief missions in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. He was 67 then.

SCHMIDT: June 18, 1938. Ok, 82. 82. God is good. Right? [SCHMIDT LAUGHS] …

Schmidt isn’t cavalier about the virus. He just sees it as another risk to consider before deploying on a mission that is already inherently dangerous.

SCHMIDT: Anytime you have a situation like COVID-19, it’s something we’ve never experienced it before. And when you’re out on a deployment it’s a hazardous thing—you’re working around trees like this. A thousand things could go wrong that could really injure you or kill you…

He gestures toward the rooftop where 72-year-old Wayne Turner and 31-year-old James Holland prepare to take another cut from the oak tree still threatening to fall on the house.


Twenty-five miles to the east, the power was still out in Lake Charles when I stopped in at Glad Tidings church. Generators the size of shipping crates powered dehumidifiers sucking the residual damp out of the sanctuary. Their constant drone mingled with the busy sounds in the parking lot. That’s where Convoy of Hope had set up a food distribution center.

Stacy Lamb is senior director of U.S. Disaster Services for Convoy of Hope. He says concerns about the virus have also kept some of his volunteers at home.

But, like his colleagues at other relief ministries, Lamb says the biggest impact on volunteerism has been compliance with virus mitigation protocols.

LAMB: So, in times past we may be able to bring, say, local church teams from around the country that want to come in and serve for a week. And then we usually use the local church facilities to house them and things like that. We have not done that because of COVID. We have not wanted to risk some of that exposure. So, because of that our volunteer numbers have been down a little bit…

Despite the more limited volunteer help, Lamb and leaders of other relief ministries say the need hasn’t outpaced their ability to serve. At least not yet.

REPORTER: Hurricane Sally made landfall before dawn as a powerful Category 2 Hurricane…

But the ministries are now preparing to deploy teams to Alabama, Florida and, possibly, the Texas Gulf Coast. 

Ed Green with New Mexico Baptist Disaster Relief says the back-to-back disasters aren’t unprecedented.

GREENE: If there’s one thing we know about this business—it’s a growth industry. If you are in disaster relief, you will never lack for work…

And those who answer the call to volunteer often do so over and over again. David Schuknecht is a veteran of eight Convoy of Hope deployments. The 67-year-old was eager to get into the field again after months of lockdown.

SCHUKNECHT: When we ask God for wisdom, He gives it to us. And we definitely need to be wise at this time. But we also need to be proactive, I believe. We’re doers. I can’t imagine just sitting at home and not doing anything. That’s not how we’re wired, how we’re made.

Larry Schmidt says volunteers are compelled to go out of love.

SCHMIDT: And that’s what Scripture tells us, “Love one another.” And that’s exactly what we think about when we’re looking at going on a deployment or something. It’s more loving someone else than it is to think about COVID, you know, or other hazards that you might face on a deployment…

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Bonnie Pritchett in southwest Louisiana.

(Photo/Bonnie Pritchett) Juan Rojas, a student at Louisiana State University, prayed with a Lake Charles resident receiving food assistance from the Convoy of Hope temporary distribution center set up at Glad Tidings church.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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One comment on “Volunteer shortage complicates disaster response

  1. Cecilia Bonsell says:

    What Christian volunteer organizations would you recommend for a young single woman?

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