14 Jun 2012 RyanJohnson

Tornadoes in the Heartland, 1,000 Volunteers and a Class at Regent University

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After a tornado, the debris always makes the same crackly sound in the wind. It’s the pieces of plastic and insulation stuck to construction debris that creates the noise. I’m still not used to sound, even though this is my fourth time in a disaster zone after a tornado. I work for Operation Blessing as a disaster photographer, but I photograph much more than just disaster; I document the hope and perseverance of a community picking itself back up and recovering from a terrible event. That’s why I do it.Regent University Christian Adult Education

I was in Harrisburg, Ill., for the first half of March, documenting a tornado that destroyed 300+homes and took seven lives. Even brick structures had been destroyed, leaving behind bare foundations and scattered cinderblocks. Big trees looked like giant toothpicks snapped in half. The sights and sounds were familiar to me, but the heartbreak and consequent hope in a community is something that always amazes me. If you ever want to see God working in a community, visit a disaster zone.

Regent University Adult Student Volunteers

A couple sits on their front steps, looking down the block at the destroyed homes. Their own brick foundation is all that is left.

I just finished taking a Disaster and Terrorism Consequence Management course in the Robertson School of Government here at Regent University. I’ve had the unique perspective of studying disaster from a desk, and then experiencing it in the field. The complimentary nature of the two has been amazing. The online nature of the class has been helpful with my unpredictable work schedule. As we were learning how to manage volunteers in class, I was watching Operation Blessing handle volunteers in the field. Not only was the classroom content helpful, it was dead on in its practical application.

As we learned in class, managing volunteers after a disaster or crisis can be very difficult; where do they sleep, what do they eat, are they a liability, what are their skills, how do they get access to the disaster zone, where do they park? In Harrisburg, we had the same questions for our volunteers: how do we equip our volunteers with the things they need to volunteer for a week?

Regent University Adult College Volunteer

An Operation Blessing volunteer cuts construction debris with a chainsaw. Wearing the right safety equipment is imperative in a disaster zone. Volunteers must be safe while assisting cleanup efforts.

Emergency Management was overwhelmed by the volunteer response, and lacked the structure to handle the logistics for so many people. We offered to help. Operation Blessing saw just over 1,000 volunteers show up our first morning in Harrisburg. We had the structure, materials, and answers. We worked with a local church to provide housing, our mobile kitchen cooked meals, and we used our volunteer forms and organizational systems to manage them safely. We even strategically placed portable bathrooms and water in the disaster zone. These were all management issues we studied in class, and I was watching it happen in the field.

It was amazing to me the level of applicability that our class content complemented my field efforts. It is no surprise that God, our amazing Father, is able to orchestrate such a coincidence. And it is also no surprise that God can use Regent University academics to complement my understanding of volunteer efforts on the ground in Harrisburg, Ill., after a natural disaster.

Regent Adult Education Volunteer Cleanup

Volunteers show up for a day of debris cleanup in Harrisburg, IL. They must first go through a quick orientation so they understand some of the safety rules and volunteer requirements.

Leo Buscaglia said, ” We have very little control over external forces such as tornadoes, earthquakes, floods, disasters, illness and pain. What really matters is the internal force. How do I respond to those disasters?” I would suggest that in addition to our internal response, as Christians, we are a part of God’s larger response to comfort his hurting children. Between the hope I saw in the community, and the things I had learned during that spring semester at Regent, I can safely say that we responded to the Harrisburg tornado as God intended, comforting his hurting children to the best of our abilities.

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Ryan Johnson

MA in International Politics

Online Student

Colorado Springs, CO

Disaster photographer and media liaison for Operation Blessing who has a long-standing love affair with coffee.
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