By Jeff Boyd, September 18, 2017: The Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) and Adventist Community Services (ACS) have been busy responding to natural disasters over the recent weeks. There has been a major earthquake in Mexico; significant flooding in Nepal, India and Bangladesh; Hurricane Harvey in Texas and then Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 storm, which left a trail of destruction in the Caribbean and Florida on September 6 and 7.
After Hurricane Harvey caused widespread flooding in Houston, Texas, USA Today ran a story about the importance of faith-based relief organizations and highlighting ACS in the first paragraph: “If you donate bottles of water, diapers, clothing or any other materials to hurricane victims in Texas or Florida, your donation will likely pass through the hands of the Seventh Day Adventists before it gets to a storm victim. That’s because the Adventists, over several decades, have established a unique expertise in disaster ‘warehousing’ collecting, logging, organizing and distributing relief supplies, in cooperation with government disaster response agencies.”
ADRA is the denomination’s major international humanitarian organization, and ACS is the domestic community development and relief agency of the denomination in the United States, Canada, Bermuda, Guam and Micronesia. ADRA was supporting ACS operations in Houston when Irma struck, forcing both organizations to continue these operations while beginning new operations.
While ADRA continues to do damage assessment in hard-to-reach island locations, it is already serving communities on the islands most affected by Irma—Anguilla, Barbuda, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Puerto Rico, St. Martin/Maarten, Tortola, and Turks and Caicos. ADRA reports that it is “working closely with global partners to supply food, water, hygiene kits, sleeping cots, mosquito nets, and more, for individuals and destitute families as quickly as possible.”
Because many airports are still closed, transporting needed resources to the various islands and communities remains a significant challenge, ADRA spokesperson Ashley Eisele told Adventist Today. The destruction of communication infrastructure further complicates response efforts. As of Friday (September 15) damage and needs assessments were still on-going.
Pastor Kern Tobias, president of the denomination’s Caribbean Union Conference, told the Adventist Review this “has been the most extensive disaster to affect our territory.” Alexander Isaacs, ADRA director for the Caribbean Union Conference, said he has never before seen a storm hit so many islands. “This is quite unprecedented as far as widespread damage here,” he said. “Some of these islands have not been hit like this in over 100 years, so the devastation is quite shocking.”
Prior to Hurricane Irma, ADRA had a presence on most of the affected islands. “We already have people there on the ground, so at least we have people to start the initial assessment and response. And then we send people in when we can to expand it and support them. These personnel already have long-term development projects there, and disasters interrupt this work. So when we deploy our emergency response team, it helps keep those other projects going as well while helping communities get through the initial relief stage and move on to recovery and rebuilding,” Eisele shared.
To lead this response team, ADRA Brazil sent a response coordinator on Saturday (September 16) to oversee operations across the region. “Right now we have all the local people working, but in major disasters, we usually deploy what we call an Emergency Response Coordinator,” explained Eisele.
ADRA first responders in these areas are local people who themselves have been greatly affected by the hurricane. “In every disaster, there are very personal stories about our staff. We don’t usually find out until after the fact, but it’s heart-breaking,’ Eisele said. This is another reason that outside support is critical during relief efforts.
Initial assessment revealed pressing needs for hygiene kits, clean water, food and shelter. Hygiene kits include basic items like soap and toothbrushes. Water projects vary based on the needs of the community. In some instances, water purification tablets for individuals or families are sufficient, while in other areas a water purification unit is needed to serve an entire community.
Hurricane Irma hit the island of Barbuda especially hard, severely damaging 90 to 95 percent of the infrastructure. This includes more than 130 destroyed schools, ADRA told Adventist Today. With this devastation and with Hurricanes Jose and Maria following shortly behind, Barbuda residents were ordered to evacuate, primarily to the island of Antigua. “The local Seventh-day Adventist churches in Antigua have pitched in to assist families with needed shelter, and ADRA is monitoring the situation for shipment of food and water, including additional assistance,” said Thierry Van Bignoot, director for emergency management at ADRA International.
About one in eight of the population of Antigua and Barbuda (13 percent) are Adventists. This is the highest proportion of Adventists of any country on the globe. There are 32 Adventist congregations.
ADRA is procuring needed food and water for the island of St. Martin/St. Maarten. Sky News, a television news channel based in the United Kingdom, reported “enormous damage” on the Dutch side of Sint Maarten. Many houses were missing roofs, and hotels were under water. Prime Minister of the Netherlands, Mark Rutte, said the storm was of “epic proportions” causing “widespread destruction of infrastructure, houses and businesses. There is no power, no gasoline, no running water.”
The Associated Press reported that France’s president Emmanuel Macron and Dutch King Willem-Alexander visited the Caribbean territories hit by Hurricane Irma. The Netherlands and France are transporting in food, water and medical supplies while facing accusations that “European governments had been unprepared, slow to react and sometimes even racist in their responses to the devastation.”
Nearly 8 percent of the population on the Dutch side of the island are Adventists where there are seven Adventist congregations. Only two percent of the population of the French side of the island are Adventists where there are six congregations.
On the archipelago of Turks and Caicos, ADRA will be distributing shelter tarps and other vital resources. The BBC reported that “Irma ripped off roofs on the main island, Grand Turk, flooded streets, snapped utility poles and caused a widespread black-out.” On the island of South Caicos, the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA) reported 80 to 90 percent of the homes were damaged. Approximately 2,000 residents were to evacuated to Provo Island.
Ninety percent of Anguilla’s roads were impassible, according to CDEMA, as reported by Sky News. Additionally, the primary hospital and airport suffered damage, and power lines were down. ADRA is providing shipments of food and water to meet emergency needs.
In the U.S. Virgin Islands, Sky News reported that damage was “catastrophic,” with many roads now inaccessible. In the British Virgin Islands, the U.K. Foreign Office said the islands suffered “severe damage,” reported Sky News. About one in ten of the residents of the Virgin Islands are Adventists and there are 15 congregations in the U.S. Virgin Islands and eight in the British Virgin Islands.
Despite missing the strongest force of the storm, northern portions of Haiti were affected, forcing more than 12,500 people into 81 emergency shelters, reported CDEMA. Flooding there has raised concern about cholera and other waterborne diseases. ADRA’s response therefore includes hygiene kits and water purification, as well as food and nonfood items.
About five percent of the 11 million people living in Haiti are Adventists. There are more than a thousand Adventist congregations, an Adventist hospital and a number of schools and orphanages operated by Adventists, as a number of ADRA community development projects with the goal of fighting endemic poverty.
In the Dominican Republic, ADRA is distributing food vouchers to 1,800 people who were impacted by Irma. The vouchers are cards preloaded with funds that can be used in local shops and markets, explained Eisele. Marketplaces take an extra hit in disasters, so vouchers feed families as well as invest in rebuilding the local economy.
Hurricane Irma caused damage in areas across Puerto Rico. Although needs assessments are still underway, ADRA has distributed food to hundreds of families. Sky News reported that streets were flooded in the city of Fajardo on the northeast coast. At least 50,000 people were without drinking water, and more than 900,000 were without electric power. Because of cutbacks in funding and staffing of the public power agency, the power supply may not be restored for six months.
Only one percent of the 3.6 million people in Puerto Rico are Adventists, the smallest proportion in the Caribbean. There are more than 300 Adventist congregations, a university and a hospital operated by the denomination, as well as a number of schools.
ADRA’s organizational structure for this region is different from most others. “This is an area where we work really closely with the church,” Eisele stated. In some countries ADRA functions as a national nonprofit or nongovernmental organization, but in much of the region affected by Irma, ADRA is based within the denomination’s Union Conference staff. Eisele explained, “The areas where our response is through an ADRA office are Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Puerto Rico.” The other islands are covered by ADRA directors in the Atlantic Caribbean Union Conference and the Caribbean Union Conference.
There are also Adventist disaster response operations in Florida. The denomination’s Florida Conference has opened donation centers at five local churches across the state where people can drop off nonperishable food and water: Fort Myers, Jacksonville Southpoint, South Orlando, Brandon and Westchester Spanish.
The Adventist-sponsored Florida Hospital announced on Wednesday (September 13) that facilities in Sebring and Wauchula were operating at full power. The Lake Placid hospital was running on generator power, but was expected to have electricity soon. Florida Hospital Seascape Imaging was expected to open Friday morning (September 15). On Tuesday (September 12), Florida Hospital reported that its “Emergency Rooms are feeling the effects of Hurricane Irma with a storm of patients needing medical care since curfews have been lifted by emergency management officials.” The hospital network stated that because of the increased need for medical assistance, it was providing “eCare visits for free (regularly $49 per visit) through Friday, September 15. … An eCare visit is a live, secure tele-health medical provider visit,” which according to the announcement is effective for dealing with conditions such as minor injuries, infections, urinary tract infection, allergies, colds, flu, sinus infections, and pink eye.
ADRA and ACS emergency relief operations will continue to ramp up over the coming days and weeks. While these efforts continue, the approaching storms of Jose, Lee, and Maria remind responders that this devastating hurricane season is not yet over.