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Fatigue, funding concerns strain disaster agencies

Less than a year ago, when one of the deadliest disasters in modern history killed an estimated 275,000 people, church members prayed, gave millions in special tsunami contributions and organized relief teams.
Eight months later, when Hurricane Katrina killed more than 1,000 people and caused an estimated $200 billion in damage in the costliest disaster in U.S. history, God’s people again rushed to donate money and supplies, not to mention sweat to clean up and rebuild.
But a new series of disasters has raised concerns of compassion fatigue — or overload, as some describe it.

By Bobby Ross Jr.
The Christian Chronicle

November 1, 2005
Less than a year ago,when one of the deadliest disasters in modern history killed an estimated275,000 people, church members prayed, gave millions in special tsunamicontributions and organized relief teams.

Eight months later,when Hurricane Katrina killed more than 1,000 people and caused an estimated$200 billion in damage in the costliest disaster in U.S. history, God’s people againrushed to donate money and supplies, not to mention sweat to clean up andrebuild.

But a new series ofdisasters has raised concerns of compassion fatigue — or overload, as somedescribe it.

“There does seem tobe a sense of being overwhelmed with one hit after another,” said JohnKachelman Jr., minister of the Judsonia, Ark.,church.

Hurricane Rita struckparts of Louisiana and Texas in late September, causing roughly $8billion in damage. Days later, Hurricane Stan brought flooding and mudslides toGuatemala, El Salvador and Mexico. The death toll could top2,000. And on top of all that, a magnitude-7.6 earthquake shook Pakistan and India on Oct. 8, claiming more than54,000 lives and leaving an estimated 2 million people homeless.

“It absolutely hurtsbecause our funding is depleted, our volunteers are exhausted and so forth,”said Ray Hughes, executive director of Rapha International, a medical missionagency.

Rapha normallydoesn’t do domestic mission work, but Hurricane Katrina — and then Rita -—changed that. Leaders of the Fort Worth, Texas-based agency said they saw suchimmense need unfolding that they felt compelled to act.

In the wake of theCentral American hurricane and the Pakistan-India earthquake, Rapha again setout to organize relief shipments. But the disasters at home couldn’t help butaffect Rapha’s ability to respond, Hughes said.

“It really has beenone thing on top of another on top of another,” he said. Because of Katrina andRita, “our normal sources for medical supplies and equipment have all dried up.”


Like Rapha, HealingHands International, a humanitarian relief agency based in Nashville, Tenn.,primarily focuses on foreign disasters. But after Katrina, Healing Hands workedto provide medical packs and hygiene kits to congregations.

Roberto Santiago,Healing Hands’ international development coordinator, said he was unsure howchurch members would respond to the latest tragedies, given the outpouringalready seen after the tsunami and Katrina.

“I think most peoplehave given generously and probably what they thought they would be able toafford this year,” Santiagosaid. “The question to be seen is if we get what they call ‘donor fatigue.’”

Arkansas minister Kachelman, who helped coordinate aid for tsunamivictims, said fatigue is not a big worry for his congregation. The Judsoniachurch recently mailed its final tsunami relief check to help brethren in Columbo, Sri Lanka, he said. Then members loaded about 20large containers with items such as hospital beds and mattresses for people inthree former Soviet republics.

“In our spare time,we have been collecting furniture to furnish two apartments in Searcy for twofamilies evacuated from Katrina,” he said. “I’ve not noticed any lagging ofeffort or diminished enthusiasm.”


Johnny Jordan, amember of the Richland Hills church, Fort Worth,Texas, spent four weeks in Sri Lankahelping after the tsunami.

What he saw promptedhim to start a new relief organization, Rapid Hope International, that he hopescan help organize better disaster response by churches of Christ.

In Jordan’s view,church members are “being stretched too thin and suffering from disasterfatigue,” a problem that he suggests could be fixed if churches gave regularlyfor disaster relief instead of waiting for a catastrophe to occur.

Giving proactivelyinstead of reactively would wipe away compassion fatigue, Jordan said.

“It would actually bethe same amount of money, but we would be better prepared to get the suppliesout there,” he said.

But Hughes — whoserves on Rapid Hope’s board -— voiced skepticism about Jordan’s idea.

“It is noble, butit’s not realistic because we’ve all tried that before,” Hughes said.

Stan Cunningham,another volunteer active in the Katrina relief effort, said he sees much roomfor improvement in churches’ response to disasters. While members’ generosityis impressive, he said, a better system of coordinating efforts is needed.

“I am saddened thatwe, as a collective body of Christ, do such a poor job of coordinating,” saidCunningham, involvement minister at the Northside church, Nashville,who spent five weeks in the New Orleans area after Katrina.

Affectedcongregations “all had to go through a drastic learning curve,” he said, “andeach of them basically had to create the wheel of disaster relief all overagain.”

Part of that, Hughessaid, is inevitable because of the autonomous nature of churches of Christ.

At the same time, noamount of coordination can overcome all the uncertainties of a disaster, saidDon Yelton, director of WFR Relief Ministries of the White’s Ferry Road church, West Monroe, La.,which collected $2.6 million after Katrina.

“WFR Relief isprepared for a disaster … but it must be assumed that in a disaster therewill be suffering and lots of it no matter how prepared we are,” he said. “No matter what we do ahead of time, therewill be shock. I think the best thing is to go with the flow.”

Joe Dudney, executivedirector of Churches of Christ Disaster Relief Effort in Nashville, which has raised roughly $8million since Katrina hit, said churches are much better prepared to respondthan they were a few years ago.

Still,he said, “We’ve got more (to handle) than we can shake a prayer over. I’ve saidall along … that we’re making a dent in it, but this is bigger than all of usput together, including the U.S.government.”

Filed under: National

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