Combating the Storm as a Frontline Responder

By Father Thomas Moore

Fr. Thomas Moore ready to assist in the Columbia, SC flood

It all started innocently enough.  By October 7, 2015, it had been raining steadily for six days in Columbia, SC and I heard on the news the night before that they might have to open the flood gates at Lake Murray which would potentially flood some low lying areas of Columbia along the Saluda River.  When I got up that morning, I thought I’d drive over to some of these areas to see if anyone needed help.  As I left my driveway, I could not make my usual left turn, as a pond dam had been breached and water flowed across the road, blocking my normal exit route.  Somewhat shocked but not particularly alarmed, since earthen pond dams flood occasionally in the south, I turned right.  Suddenly I was confronted with shallow flooded lawns and ditches on each side of the road.  One mile ahead a police car blocked the road.  He was turning all traffic to their homes. I realized I was in the middle of an emergency situation and returned home to put the magnetic IOCC (International Orthodox Christian Charities) Emergency Relief signs on the doors of my truck and don my IOCC vest and cap. Returning to the police blockade, they instantly passed me through.

I should back up and explain the IOCC connection.  Several years before, a group of members of Holy Apostles parish and I spent a week in New Orleans with an IOCC relief team organized and led by Pascalis Papouras who was in charge of the IOCC US Program at that time.  We slept on the floor of a local church that also provided meals for us.  It was a sobering but exhilarating week of fellowship while rebuilding homes and talking with displaced residents.  Sometime later I was contacted by Dan Christopulos, the current Country Representative of IOCC’s US Program, to see if I would be willing to be an IOCC Frontline Responder for South Carolina.  In the ensuing years I attended several training sessions in Chicago, but honestly I considered the coast as a potential hurricane danger due to past destruction, but never thought that Columbia, over one hundred miles away, would be a site of such a catastrophe.  Thus, I had to take off my curious priest hat, and put on my official Frontliner identification.

Damaging Results of the Storm

IOCC and Operation Blessing in ecumenical long-term disaster recovery

The problem in Columbia was not just that the Saluda River rose above flood stage and inundated several housing developments along the river, but also a series of pond dams were breached on the east side of town; the Columbia canal downtown was breached and wiped out the drinking water supply for the city; and another large pond west of the city also had burst and flooded all the homes downstream.  It was a perfect storm that left Columbia and surrounding areas cut off from relief, clean water, and other public services.  Within three days the water subsided, leaving many areas of Columbia destroyed.  Residents and volunteers scrambled to clear mud out of homes, trying to save valuables while moving wet furniture out to the curbside. Streets were full of discarded furniture, rotting sheet rock, and people in shock,  while the water continued to wipe out other towns as it moved down to the ocean.

After making contact with Dan Christopulos, he immediately sent an “Alpha Team” of Frontliners: Fr. Angelo Pappas (Myrtle Beach Fire Chaplain), Deacon (now Father) Constantine Shepherd (Winston-Salem retired Police Officer and Police Chaplain), Jacob Lewis Saylor (Charlotte, NC Disaster Preparedness Specialist), and Fr. Vasile Bitere, another Frontliner in Augusta, GA.  We traveled the city, visited shelters, and attended many organizational meetings to see what we could realistically do to help.  Initially it involved Holy Apostles warehousing and distributing clean up buckets and health kits that IOCC shipped to us, while participating in the setup of Multi Agency Resource Centers (MARCs) where several services, including trauma counseling were offered.  Maria Shelley from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Church in Columbia activated their Philoptochos Society (the Greek women’s auxiliary) who began delivering meals to feed the volunteers and coordinated parishioners to form small work teams for muck-out (and later rebuilding) projects.

Within the first few days Dan Christopulos along with Larry Stoner, the Mennonite Disaster Response Coordinator, came to Columbia and participated in many meetings with other organizations, local politicians, police and firemen to make plans for short term response and long term recovery.  Dan and I were interviewed on the Orthodox Christian Network (OCN) as we began beating the drum for volunteers to come to Columbia.  As the initial muck-out work, including completely stripping affected homes of furniture and sheetrock due to mold problems, wore on, housing and feeding volunteers began to be a priority.  As God would have it, a ministry of Holy Nativity Orthodox Church in Charlotte, NC led by Fr. Bill Mills, had recently renovated the concrete warehouse next to Holy Apostles, intended to be our new community hall.  It was decided by the Parish Council to put in a shower, that IOCC helped pay for, and offer the renovated hall as a potential housing for volunteers.

Continued Long Term Response from Holy Apostles, Other Christian Ministries, and Volunteers of Many Religious Backgrounds and Ages

Orthodox volunteers help in rebuilding

After realizing what a complicated job this would be, I met Timothy Shaeffer at one of the Red Cross meetings.  His fulltime job with Brethren Disaster Ministries is organizing emergency response teams for long term rebuilding after disasters. His organization, along with the disaster arms of the United Church of Christ and the Disciples of Christ, formed an entity called Disaster Recovery Support Initiative (DRSI) to do long term recovery work, starting in Columbia. We were so grateful for his dedication and expertise that we handed over our hall and parking lot for his use for a year.  We worked closely together to house, feed, and coordinate workers from every imaginable religious background and age, including two teams of Orthodox Christians organized through IOCC as they volunteered to spend a week working with DRSI.  They stayed at our Church, helping befriend and rebuild the homes of the flood survivors.  Holy Apostles Church parking lot slowly took on the ambiance of an RV campground.  Visitors, many of whom had never heard of the Orthodox Church before or thought it was a church for immigrants, were fascinated to visit our services, take tours of the Church, and learn about our beautiful heritage. Many have kept in touch to this day.

A Valuable Spiritual Lesson

Our Church learned a valuable spiritual lesson through this.  Initially some were concerned about how we would afford the electricity for heating and AC, or the costs of feeding such large groups over a year.  We had no idea how to assess this, but plunged ahead because we felt it was the right thing to do.  When all was said and done, and the relief teams moved on in November of 2016, we had made new friends, helped some, spread the Gospel, and somehow surpassed our expected income for 2016 by almost twenty thousand dollars.  The Lord tells us that as you give so shall you receive. We can bear witness to that truth.

Qualifications for Becoming an IOCC Frontliner

The IOCC Frontline is part of the IOCC Emergency Response Network and consists of 100 Orthodox clergy and lay people, spread throughout the ten FEMA regions of the United States. Frontline members typically have a Master of Divinity degree (for clergy) and /or a master’s level education in Counseling, Psychology, or Social Work.  In addition to their formal education, they undergo special training in Critical Incident Stress Management in order to work with people who have undergone trauma associated with natural and man-made disasters.  If you would like to be considered to become an IOCC Frontliner, please contact IOCC US Country Representative Daniel Christopulos at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

If you are interested in learning how to become more active in disaster preparedness, response and recovery in your community, reach out to your local American Red Cross affiliate for training and other opportunities.