A Journey into Disaster

PROLOGUE: On August 13, 2014, a catastrophic rain deluged over Long Island NY dumping up to 13" in some places. Hundreds of homes were damaged. NY Disaster Relief Leaders, Mike and Beverley Flannery responded and set up a quick Incident Command office in Islip. New England sent a team of 6 chaplains and assessors for our first round of support. Two more teams will leave within a week. Bridjo (Bree) was one of the chaplains on the first team.

By Bridjo  Cobbs

When I found out on Friday that I was going to be deployed to New York for Disaster Relief, I was surprised.  To be honest, I didn’t even know that there had been a disaster!  There wasn’t any coverage on the news that I had seen and I hadn’t read about anything online.  But Saturday morning at 5:30am I was on my way.

I didn’t know what to expect, as this was my first deployment as a Disaster Relief chaplain.  I remember when I found out that I could even be a chaplain.  I always thought that in order to be a chaplain, you would need to go to seminary and earn an advanced degree.    In my mind I had put chaplain right up there with pastor.  After talking with Bruce James, the evangelism director at the BCNE, I found out that while a chaplain may indeed be a pastor or counselor, it could also be anyone who wanted to provide care and compassion to hurting people during crisis or disaster.   I knew right then and there that this position was for me.

I began my training in January of 2014.  There are three core trainings that you must take to become a chaplain.  Each of these was provided at little or no cost by the BCNE.  About two weeks ago I received my endorsement letter from the North American Mission Board, making it official: I was a Southern Baptist Disaster Relief Chaplain!  One week later I received my call.  As you can imagine, I was a little freaked out.  After all, I had only been a chaplain for one week and with no real life experience in a catastrophe.   I was feeling sorry for the folks that had been through a disaster and now were getting me as their chaplain!  

(Assessor Tim Buehner delivering sad news to homeowner LeeAnn that her kitchen must be torn out ->)

I found out that Long Island had gotten 13 inches of rain in five hours.  We arrive at 11:30 am and after a short orientation I was out on my first call at 1:00.  I had been assigned to an assessment team which consisted of myself as chaplain and Tim Buehner as the assessor.   Our job was to go and visit homes that had been flooded and assess the damage and the needs of the victims.  I got some great advice from the other chaplains who were there who told me, “Just love on ‘em."  That advice helped to make me feel a little less nervous.   I knew I could do that!
On our first call I met a young woman named Daley.  She was a 26 year old single mom with two children. She lived with her dad and her 16-year-old sister.  The lower level of their split level ranch had been flooded with about two feet of water.  It was destroyed.  The smell of mold was overwhelming.  Everything that was in the lower level had to be thrown out.  To add insult to injury, the insurance company wouldn’t cover anything because they did not have flood insurance.  They didn’t even live in a flood zone.  Her younger daughter has respiratory issues which the mold was making worse.

Try to imagine how devastating it would be to watch half of your house being destroyed and not being able to do anything about it.  Then imagine you have to continue to live there even though it is making your child sick because you have nowhere else to go.  And even though you paid your insurance company faithfully every month, they won't help you at all.   Unfortunately, that was not all that Daley was dealing with.  Her dad and stepmom had divorced earlier in the year.  Two weeks before the floods, during a police chase, a car crashed through the living room of their house, literally.  There was debris everywhere.   Talk about a disaster!  Any one of those things would be enough to send someone over the edge.

(<- Bruce James powerwashing homeowner's basement)

It was while Tim was assessing the damage that I learned all of these things.  I was able to talk to Daley and learned that she has 5 cats that she absolutely loves.  I learned that because her dad works every day, she has been the one trying to clean up the mess from the flood.  This is what being a chaplain is all about: to sit and listen to someone talk about what they are going through, offering support when it is needed.   Before we left, we were able to pray for Daley and her family.   I was no longer worried if I was qualified to be a chaplain or not.

On day three I took a break from assessments and went out on a mud-out call.  We arrived at Phil Staros’ house ready to go.  Phil was a single dad whose basement had been flooded with about a foot of water.  Phil also had recently been diagnosed with cancer and had broken his spine a short time previously.  In just a few hours we were able to empty his basement, wash away the mold and sanitize it with bleach. 

That leads me to my favorite part of being a DR Chaplain: why we do it.  Remember Daley? Can you imagine her relief to know that someone was willing to come into her house remove all the trash and remediate the mold, for free!  Whenever we tell someone this, they always ask the question, "Why?  Why would you do this for free?"  And the answer is always the same, because of God’s love.  God gave us the greatest gift of all for free.  We want to show God’s love to you.  And there it is, hope, right in the midst of disaster.  People are blown away by that.  Some are so blown away that they accept Christ right then and there.  When we finished with Phil’s basement that is exactly what he did.

(Enthusiastic new believer & homeowner Phil Staros stands between DR servants Dennis Oneil (NJ) and Coleen Phillips ->)

I think the greatest lesson I learned this week was that when I heard the word disaster I would immediately think of 9/11 or Hurricane Sandy.  But the truth of the matter is that disaster, in Phil’s case, was trying to figure out how he was going to come up with the money to fix his basement.  For Daley, it was trying keeping her daughter healthy in an unhealthy living environment.   

Unfortunately, there is far more disaster than there is relief.   Volunteers are always needed.   If you have never considered serving, please do so.  There are positions as chaplains,  on chainsaw teams, mud out teams, administration teams, assessors and feeding teams.  There is really something for everyone.   You can find more information at http://www.bcne.net/DR.  Give someone hope in the midst of their disaster.