One year later: Blue Mountain flood recovery benefitting from cross-conference disaster response

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a house flooded in Blue Mountain area
Flooded home near Kooskooskie, WA. Photo by David Lopez.
By Sally Blanchard

A year after the worst flood in decades in the Blue Mountain communities of northeastern Oregon and southeastern Washington, people are still struggling to recover. Homes await repairs and livestock fences need to be restored. In some neighborhoods boulders, logs and piles of debris remain where the flood waters left them. COVID-19 restrictions have slowed assessments of damage and prevented some teams of volunteers from helping.

Flooding from by heavy rainfall and snowmelt caused a state of emergency to be declared in Umatilla, Union and Wallowa counties in early February 2020. More than 600 families in Washington and Oregon were affected by overflowing creeks and rivers that flooded homes and left thick mud and debris in their wake.

The United Methodist Church has been actively engaged since the waters began to recede, with the Pacific Northwest and Oregon-Idaho Conferences working together during the relief and recovery periods.

Kathy Bryson and Larry Johnson, Disaster Response Coordinators from the two areas, respectively, quickly contacted UMCOR and arranged the logistics to get flood buckets filled with cleaning and disinfecting supplies and hygiene kits delivered to the Washington and Oregon Multi-Agency Resource Centers (MARC). United Methodist volunteers from both Conferences helped transport buckets and staff the MARCs.

Pioneer UMC in Walla Walla, Wash., sent volunteers and contributed significant funds to the recovery efforts.

a kitchen is covered in mud from flooding
A flooded kitchen in one home. Photo by David Lopez.

The Blue Mountain Region Long-Term Recovery Group was organized in the wake of the flooding and models nationwide best practices for recovering from disasters. Their areas of concern include Walla Walla, Columbia, and Umatilla counties, and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. It is made up of a coalition of community organizations including non-profits, churches including United Methodists, private sector, community action groups, foundations, and others, all working together to help the most vulnerable survivors recover.

UMCOR is known among disaster relief agencies as being a presence who stays for the long term after the early response is over. Large scale disasters often take many years for the recovery phase.

The benefits of working across conferences to support disaster response have never seemed more essential. Dan Moseler, interim Disaster Response Coordinator for Oregon-Idaho Conference said PNW, Alaska and Oregon-Idaho areas have worked together over the last several years but have become more intentional about working together in recent years. The collaboration shares the insights of people with diverse experience and expertise. This allows some to specialize in skills such as grant writing and document templates. The leaders share ideas for problem solving and communicate regularly. They share trainings across areas to bring in new volunteers to be ready for the next need. They back each other up when needed.  And after a disaster response trip they can offer spiritual and emotional support to each other.

Bryson said working together, “keeps our eyes forward for the next need. When you’re engaged in a disaster reality it becomes your reality.  When you come home you have the need to tell the story and you continue thinking about the people. You come back with another level of awareness. By having colleagues across areas those who are watching from a distance can keep their eyes forward and be listening for the next need. “

Louise Kienzle, Oregon-Idaho Conference United Methodist Volunteers in Mission (UMVIM) Coordinator, took on the co-volunteer coordinator role with the Blue Mountain Region Long-Term Recovery Group. She worked quickly in spring 2020 to develop volunteer guidelines and protocols in a COVID-19 environment. These necessary health precautions have been challenging. Currently, only volunteers who are local or can commute for the day are currently able to help. When the health restrictions are lifted she looks forward to inviting trained Early Response Teams and Volunteer in Mission Teams and others. See this link for more information on volunteering then contact Kienzle at umvim@umoi.org

As the Blue Mountain flooding had impacts across state lines, Bryson also serves on the Blue Mountain Long Term Recovery Group. She serves on the on the Unmet Needs Table  and is liaison with the Washington Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters (VOAD)

a list of items for cleaning up flooding
A handwritten list of instructions for those mucking out homes devasted by flooding. Photo by David Lopez.

“The long-term recovery group, Unmet Needs Table participants and case managers are a dedicated group and have been a joy to work with” Bryson said.

David Reinholz, spouse of Rev. Juli Reinholz, pastor of Pioneer UMC in Walla Walla, Wash., is working as the co-chair of the LTRG on the Washington side. He has experience working in disaster recovery from the Pateros area wildfires in Central Washington.

“Our goal in recovery is to help people have a safe, sanitary and secure place to live. One of the challenges is gaining the trust of survivors. Listening to their story is the first thing,” Reinholz said. “(Survivors) want to know someone hears them and cares. Sometimes people don’t know what resources are available. Once trust is slowly gained the true needs can be uncovered.”

Those needs are passed to the unmet needs roundtable, part of long term recovery group. Community leaders use their connections to try to find solutions for those without insurance or other resources. An elderly woman who needed her flooded floor replaced was helped by a local church group. Another couple with mobility challenges lost their recliners and an individual stepped up to purchase new ones while another person delivered them. A mobile home park along the Umatilla River had major flooding damage and the survivors await a construction manager to assess next steps in repair and elevating the trailers above flood level if possible.

UMCOR recently sent a $100K solidarity grant to help to pay a construction supervisor and disaster case managers.

a mobile home with piles of garbage bags outside.
Bags of debris removed from flooded mobile home. Photo by David Lopez.

Jim Truitt, Greater Northwest Area Disaster Response Coordinator, oversees United Methodist disaster responses across the Northwest. He is in regular contact with Bishop Elaine Stanovsky and cabinet on disaster response. He has over 16 years of experience responding to natural disasters and training others to respond.

When wildfires broke out across Washington and Oregon in September, Bishop Stanovsky pulled together a disaster crisis response team for the Greater NW Area to gather information and coordinate resources and responses. Creating a year-round disaster response committee comprised of ERTs, clergy and laity from the Oregon-Idaho, Alaska and Pacific Northwest Conferences is one of many priorities Bishop Stanovsky has outlined as climate change continues to wreak havoc in various forms of natural disasters and more coordinated efforts will continue to be necessary.

Truitt sees cross-conference disaster response as a best practice.

“I talk to people across the US every month about what they are doing and I am continually impressed with how well we work together as a team,” he said. “We have a good rapport with others across the Western Jurisdiction and we know we will support each other as best we can.”

Learn more about flood recovery efforts from this video from Blue Mountain Television.

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