On the Frontlines of Disaster: Operation Blessing a First Responder to the Hurting

The residents of the upper and lower ninth ward in New Orleans, Louisiana, USA, never expected to hear the cracking sounds of the levee that gave way to the rushing floodwaters brought on by Hurricane Katrina. They never expected to smell the stench of corpses or see the debris-choked streets and communities that surfaced when the waters receded.

Similarly, families in Niger never expected to see their sun-baked land hardened by drought, their crops ravaged by locusts or their children crying with hunger pangs. But these were the sights and sounds of a nation of 2.5 million people facing starvation. 

On 26 December 2004, villagers in Indonesia and Southeast Asia never expected to watch a fifty-foot wall of water tear into their coastlines, forcefully claim their loved ones and leave them with nothing but barren beaches.

No one expects disaster to come to them. But unfortunately, disaster happens. Disaster is not a respecter of persons, nations or lands. Its nature is unruly, loud, forceful and overwhelming. Its mark is one of destruction, pain, suffering and sometimes death. And yet for all its tragedy, disaster offers an opportunity like no other. It offers an opportunity to demonstrate compassion in action.

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OBI volunteers help victims of Katrina

For the past twenty-seven years, the mission of Operation Blessing International (OBI), a non-profit humanitarian organization, has been to break the cycle of suffering. Through medical missions, hunger relief, educational and vocational training, wells and cisterns projects and more, OBI has extended the arm of humanitarian aid and Christian compassion to more than two hundred million people in ninety-six countries. Most recently, OBI has increased the scope of their disaster relief programs in response to an unprecedented year of natural disasters in 2005, including the Southeast Asian tsunami and the worst natural disaster to strike United States soil, Hurricane Katrina.

Helping Hands
“For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you took me in.” Matthew 25:35

Before Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast of the U.S., Operation Blessing dispatched their fleet of tractor-trailer trucks loaded with food, water and emergency supplies to staging areas near the Gulf Coast. Within a week after Katrina’s fury, they had delivered 958,284 pounds of food, drinks and relief supplies.

During the first week of September 2005, OBI’s brand new fifty-three-foot mobile kitchen arrived in Slidell, Lousiana, USA, and began churning out thousands of hot meals every day for hurricane victims. On one particular day, they served 6,600 hot meals to victims and volunteer teams. This was enough meals to draw the attention of city officials and the federal government. Seeing how quickly and efficiently OBI responded, Slidell mayor Ben Morris and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials requested OBI’s assistance with their “blue roof project,” which involved securing blue tarps onto damaged roofs to help protect homes from further damage. Within hours of their request, Operation Blessing obtained two hundred tarps; purchased ladders, saws and hammers; and mobilized two volunteer teams of fifty to one hundred people each to begin tarping homes. 

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Gulf Coast devastation

“We’re able to handle those jobs and respond to the needs quickly,” said Sam Constantine, construction coordinator for Operation Blessing. “Every day is different from the next and we are increasing in our ability to help even more victims.”

Unfortunately, for many people, help comes at a hefty price. Local contractors were charging residents nearly four times the normal cost to remove trees or install electric poles to restore power to homes and FEMA-donated trailers. After a contractor quoted a Louisiana school teacher $11,000 for a single tree removal, Operation Blessing obtained her work order and cleared her property—free of charge.

Strategy of Commitment
“And let us not grow weary in well-doing, for in due season we shall reap, if we do not lose heart.” Galatians 6:9

On 26 September 2005, Operation Blessing put their commitment in writing by signing a lease on a 22,000 square foot warehouse in Slidell. The facility serves as the command center for OBI’s hurricane relief and recovery efforts in the Gulf Coast. It is here where they receive work orders, house volunteers and distribute aid. A similar site is planned for Metairie, Louisiana.

“It will take months, perhaps years, before normalcy is restored to the lives of the people in this region,” said Jody Herrington, Operation Blessing’s disaster relief manager. “But, we are committed to these people.”

Being committed means continually adapting to the community’s needs. Roof tarping hit a snag when debris-clogged streets prevented work teams from reaching victims. In response, OBI purchased an eighteen-ton capacity rough terrain crane to help in tree and debris removal. This move has helped pave the way for 22,000 FEMA trailers to be delivered to victims whose homes were destroyed.

“Operation Blessing has impacted our whole community,” said Marcell, whose home in Slidell was cleared of debris and tarped by OBI. “When most organizations have already left, this is when we need them the most.”

Bill Horan, president of Operation Blessing, added, “We are here to meet the needs of the people. We are market-driven, not profit-driven.”

Being a market-driven relief agency means staying the course until the course runs out, that is, until the community is able to thrive and function independently of outside resources and support. For OBI, meeting the needs of the people includes even the most basic needs, namely, communication. To help connect those returning to the devastated areas with friends, family and the outside world, OBI set up a satellite Internet café at a mid-city church in New Orleans—one of the few places in the city to offer Internet access to victims. 

In the end, no need is too small or too big. OBI has fed hundreds of thousands; cleared trees and debris from over two thousand homes in Slidell and surrounding areas; installed temporary light poles for residents without power; and started a new phase of recovery, treating and removing mold from victim’s homes.

Robert’s Story
“Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” 1 Corinthians 13:7

His eyes welled up with tears when the four-vehicle convoy of Operation Blessing volunteers rolled up to his house. It was now a shell of a house. Hurricane Katrina had forced dozens of trees onto his roof and pushed ten feet of water into his home, causing officials to condemn it. For now, Robert’s home is the 1992 Nissan red pickup parked next to his house.

“If Operation Blessing would have never come, I would have given up,” he said.

And Robert calls OBI volunteers who worked tirelessly to remove the trees and debris and to gut out his home his “angels.” His stove, bathtub and refrigerator are now piled on a heap of pink insulation and slabs of drywall. Despite all appearances, this is a sign of progress. They left him with a cleared yard and the encouragement to continue to rebuild his life.

“The fact that people have come and assisted in demolition and repair work gives you a boost,” added Tom, a neighbor of Robert’s who also received help from OBI. “It gives us a great deal of encouragement and emotional energy to go on.”

And a boost is exactly what Robert needed. At age 66, he suffers from diabetes and a bad back, but that doesn’t keep him from attempting to rebuild his property with materials donated to him—even if he can work for only twenty minutes at a time. “It might take me awhile to rebuild, but thanks to Operation Blessing, I at least have that desire,” he said. 

Robert also has hope in knowing that there are still those willing to freely give and expecting nothing in return. “I don’t blame the government for not being able to respond to all of our needs,” he stated. “I am just thankful that Operation Blessing sought to help the whole community without strings attached.”

A Faith-based Approach
“For we are laborers together with God.” 1 Corinthians 3:9

Effective disaster relief is not built by an army of one. The success of Operation Blessing’s outreach has been largely based on their ability to leverage resources, partner with other non-profit organizations and tap into local networks of faith-based organizations. Along with OBI’s mobile kitchen, their Hunger Strike Force (a fleet of fifty-eight tractor-trailers) has delivered over nine million pounds of food and relief supplies and has supported both OBI’s outreach activities and the mass-feeding programs of the Salvation Army and the Southern Baptists.

They have also managed to recruit groups of diversified volunteers and skilled tradesmen. Teams from AmeriCorps, the Christian Contractor’s Association (CCA), the Mennonites and other non-profit, governmental and/or faith-based groups are now working together to achieve a singular goal: help the hurting. When Operation Blessing can’t be there, these groups work through the hands of those who can—local churches and faith-based groups who can effectively assess their community’s needs.

Through OBI’s fast-track cash grant program, church groups and organizations receive the monetary push to jumpstart their relief and recovery efforts. “Each stricken area has a different set of needs,” said Horan. “Food, furniture, construction materials, gasoline, debris removal, medicine, mold remediation, household necessities and so much more. Cash grants enable local churches to meet the needs specific to their own area. It’s grassroots relief in the most effective way possible.”

To date, Operation Blessing has awarded cash grants to hundreds of faith-based organizations in the Gulf Coast region, totaling over $3.5 million. And they are not done yet. Disasters are never a question of “if” but rather a question of “when.” Disasters will come and they will be forceful, unruly and destructive. But there will always be those who come on the heels of a disaster to bring life, hope and healing to its victims. In the end, disaster relief is not about pointing the finger of blame, but about being ready and able to answer its call.“I don’t believe that God sends hurricanes or earthquakes or tsunamis,” concluded Horan. “But I do believe that he sends his people to help heal the wounds.”


Sarah Pate is a staff writer with Operation Blessing. She holds a bachelors degree in communication studies and Spanish from UNC-Chapel Hill and a masters degree in Journalism from Regent University.