MNA Disaster Response: Ready When Calamity Comes
By Adam MacInnis

What do you do when your church is flooded with seven feet of water and half a foot of mud is running through the building?

The Neon Reformed Presbyterian Church (OPC) congregation in Neon, Kentucky, faced that question after its community was hit with torrential rain in late July and early August.

Thankfully, the congregation knew whom to call. Within days, the PCA’s Mission to North America Disaster Response team transported equipment to Neon to help relief efforts (the denominations enjoy “fraternal relations”). The wherewithal to meet such specific needs is due to years of experience and an established supply chain.

In Rome, Georgia, a 15,000-square-foot building is filled with supplies — everything from hygiene items to chainsaws and dehumidifiers. Outside on the 3.5-acre property are large pieces of equipment, mobile bunkhouses, and showers. This is the epicenter of Disaster Response. 

And while ancient Rome wasn’t built in a day, neither was the Charles H. Jones Family Disaster Response Center in the Georgia town bearing that name.

Arklie Hooten, MNA’s Disaster Response and short-term missions director, has been involved with the denomination’s disaster response since its infancy. While there were early attempts at helping in major events, there was no formal structure. When the 9/11 attacks happened, the deficiencies became apparent.

“People were asking, ‘What are you guys doing? How can we help?’” Hooten said. A plan was quickly cobbled together, but it opened the eyes of PCA leaders to the need for a full-time person in the role. 

Katrina Clarified the Need

Then on Aug. 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit. At the time Hooten got a call when he was on MNA’s staff developing its short-term missions program. “It looks like this Katrina thing is bigger than we anticipated. Is there any chance you can go down to the Gulf Coast and help for a few days?” the voice on the line’s other end asked.

Expecting to stay only a couple of days, Hooten packed a duffle bag and took off. Little did he know then that it would be Christmas before he returned home. But it was only a short time before he returned to the field. 

And it was during this time that the ministry’s key position became open. So Hooten was asked to coordinate the PCA’s response. Soon, the temporary role became permanent. 

While the task was monumental, Hooten was excited to be part of what he sees as the PCA’s first denomination-wide robust mobilization for disaster response. “Through that, I think people saw that they could use their time, talent, and treasure to advance God’s Kingdom,” he said. Still, there were serious challenges that needed to be addressed.

MNA Disaster Response is proactive in its approach to storms. The organization monitors major weather events, and when it hears of a disaster the team initiates a call to local PCA churches.

“At that point it was me, and I had no resources and no money,” he says. “I didn’t have a barrack full of army guys stacked up ready to put on a truck and send them out.” So he met with other PCA leaders and explained what was needed. What he got was enthusiastic support.

“MNA empowered me and basically said: ‘Whatever it takes. This is something that we should be doing. The PCA wants it. Let’s roll.’” Hooten began the process of finding key leaders. Some were professionals, and others were construction managers or people with helpful knowledge. But most important to Hooten was that they already had a heart for the ministry. “We never called anyone to join our team who had not been volunteering with us already,” he said.

Today, MNA has a team of disaster response regional coordinators set up throughout the U.S., ready to lead should a disaster hit, whether it’s a forest fire, tornado, hurricane, or flood. 

One of the people whom Hooten called on was Rick Lenz.

Lenz started volunteering with MNA Disaster Response in 2008 during the Iowa flooding disaster. Two years later he became a full-time employee and helped develop a disaster response preparation plan for presbyteries and churches. He now serves as a regional specialist.

MNA Disaster Response is proactive in its approach to storms. The organization monitors major weather events, and when it hears of a disaster the team initiates a call to local PCA churches in the area. “We typically go in where we have a church and help them assess the situation to see if they need outside help,” Lenz said. If they do, then MNA energizes the greater PCA for volunteers, funds, and prayers.

An early-response team then comes in and sets up an operations base for volunteers. Disaster Response now has bunkhouse trailers and mobile shower units that can roll into a disaster area. This is important because often after a significant weather event, hotels are full.  

Next, the team brings in larger equipment, such as skid steers that can be used to move debris. Also, MNA sends “Sheds of Hope” — prefabricated 8-by-8-foot sheds. “We give those to people to store whatever they can salvage or whatever they acquire after a disaster,” Lenz explains.

Whether it’s valuables from a damaged home or tools that need safe storage, these sheds are a place where people can begin rebuilding their lives.

Response teams focus on the church’s leaders and congregation first and then expand their scope to the broader community.

The Spiritual Side of the Ministry Makes a Difference

Lenz has spent a lot of time setting up systems that ensure help is practical and efficient, but he also recognizes the spiritual importance of the work they do. He makes it a point to pray with teams and the people they help. He finds most are receptive. “I’ve never had anybody turn me down for praying with them,” he said.

While their primary job is to help fix what’s broken, he believes it’s also important to give people a chance to talk about their traumatic experiences. He encourages his volunteers to provide a listening ear. “It’s just as important to listen to them as it is to do the work, because they need to get that out,” Lenz said. 

While their primary job is to help fix what’s broken, it’s also important to give people a chance to talk about their traumatic experiences.

As the ministry has grown, so has the number of volunteers. Sherry Lanier, MNA Disaster Response facilitator, oversees volunteer mobilization, communications, and administrative support. She began volunteering during Katrina and said it’s been a joy to watch God bless the ministry and see it grow. It now has thousands of volunteers to call on when disaster strikes.

As soon as she learns of a need, Lanier goes to the database and sends a call for help. All those registered have completed a background screening and been cleared to serve. Those volunteers then indicate their availability, and she and her team assign a task for which they can be used.

Lanier said it’s important to make sure volunteers have lots to keep them busy. The last thing she wants is for people who are sacrificing time from their work and families to feel like their time is being wasted.

To ensure it doesn’t duplicate efforts, MNA Disaster Response is part of a national organization called Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD). Most reputable volunteer disaster response organizations are part of this group. So, for instance, if Samaritan’s Purse is working in one area, the PCA will tackle another. 

Blowing Away Barriers to the Gospel

Like Lenz, Lanier said it creates incredible opportunities to share the gospel. “Through the disaster events, God either blows away, washes away, or burns away barriers that people have placed,” she said. “It’s just a beautiful opportunity for the gospel.”

Mark Becker, who lives in Katy, Texas, now serves as an MNA regional specialist. He has been involved with disaster response for almost three decades. It was during Hurricane Harvey that things literally hit home for him, though. His town was drenched with 30 inches of rain in two days. Other parts of Texas were hit with 50 inches.

Becker and his wife, Suzan, ended up hosting volunteer teams that were coming to help; they also worked with team leaders to coordinate work assignments. During that time, Becker saw the ministry’s impacts on his own community and gained valuable experience he now uses as a regional specialist.

For him, what’s most rewarding is helping people who are overwhelmed. Many people are in shock and feel helpless. Having someone come in and help them get started are big steps and offer opportunities to minister.

Hurricane Ian may have caused $67 billion in damage, making it a top 5 U.S. storm. (Axios)

When Becker sends a crew to clear debris, he also sends a box of Bibles. “That’s part of their equipment along with the chainsaws.” If they help someone who doesn’t have a Bible and is open to receiving one, they give it right away. “You need to be prepared for whatever the occasion is,” he said.

The Warehouse Means We’re Always Ready

Mike Kennamer lives in Henagar, Alabama, and has been involved in disaster response since 2005, when his family served in Biloxi and Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, after Katrina. 

In 2015, he established the TAG (Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia) region of MNA Disaster Response. Then in 2018, he was called as the manager of the MNA Charles H. Jones Family Disaster Response Warehouse in Rome. 

He’s now responsible for the acquisition, receipt, inventory, and deployment of materials, supplies, and tools to disaster sites across the United States and to regional depots in Texas and Virginia.

The great thing about the warehouse, he says, is that it allows Disaster Response to have supplies ready to ship instantly. Prior to its establishment, the ministry would have to assess a need, raise funds or the needed supplies, and then ship them. Too often, it took too long to get help when and where it was needed. 

In addition to making sure equipment is ready, Disaster Response also offers training so volunteers know how to handle machinery safely. By taking care of it ahead of time, there is no delay in sending help.

The One Who Gets Us Through the Storm

Kennamer has witnessed firsthand the impact the work he does can have on people. He recalls that once during a disaster response to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, someone came up to him and struck up a conversation. The man was amazed when he heard that Kennamer was  an Alabama community college dean at the time. “You took a week’s vacation to come here to help me? What in the world would ever cause you to do something like that?”

“I haven’t been through the flood like you,” Kennamer responded, “but I have been through storms in my life, and there is One who has gotten me through all those storms, so I’m here to show you the grace and mercy I’ve found from Him.”

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