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Local volunteers help rebuild, and provide hope, after natural disasters

Paul Hunt
MDS volunteers rebuild homes in the Paradise, California community after the November 2018 Camp Fire destroyed 240 sq miles. MDS Weekly Volunteer Eric Krause (blue hat) with MDS Construction Supervisor Laverne Delp

Volunteers with Mennonite Disaster Service are deployed all over the country to help communities rebuild after floods, fires, and storms. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.

[sounds of coffee shop in background]

Beverly and Laverne Delp, of Harrisonburg, recently returned from eastern Kentucky, where catastrophic flooding in late July took 37 lives.

Randi B. Hagi
Laverne and Beverly Delp

LAVERNE DELP: You would be driving down the road, along a river or a stream, and you might see an article of clothing or trash hanging in a tree 15 feet above the water.

BEVERLY DELP … Anything you'd find in a house was now in the creek.

The husband-and-wife team have volunteered with Mennonite Disaster Service, or MDS, since 2018. The nonprofit is a network of Anabaptist churches that clean up, repair, and rebuild homes after natural disasters. Laverne is an electrician by trade, and Beverly was a secretary before she retired – so they bring a very useful combination of skills to project sites. They were in Kentucky for five and a half weeks.

LAVERNE DELP: The local response team … wasn't in place yet, so we were somewhat limited in what we could do, and so we just tried to do what we could – tear drywall out, let things dry out, I did some mold remediation.

BEVERLY DELP: … And we stayed at a camp down there – they were even housing some displaced people there. They provided meals for whoever wanted to come. Meal time – the dining room was open. They also had a large gymnasium full of donations. … They had everything from bottled water to diapers, formula, food, clothing.

LAVERNE DELP: … The flooding happened during the night, and that's what caught some people off guard. One guy we talked to, he had a CPAP machine and it stopped during the night, and that was his clue that something was wrong. His electric had gone off.

They agreed that the relationships they build with other volunteers are the most rewarding part of the work.

BEVERLY DELP: I think, at the beginning, I went out of a sense of call. … Now I go because I have so much fun and it's such a joy for us.

The flood cleanup in Kentucky is one of 10 current MDS projects. The organization has about 50 volunteer units spread across the U.S. and Canada that respond to events such as fires, floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes. Executive Director Kevin King, who also lives in Harrisonburg, said that when he signed on in 2004, they usually saw three to four natural disasters per year. Now, it ranges from 15 to 25.

Kevin King

KEVIN KING: We've seen, also, a marked increase in the number of national disasters.

A national disaster is one that's so destructive that MDS has to mobilize resources from across the country in response, rather than just sending a local or regional team.

KING: For example, I can tick off, last year – would have been the Louisiana hurricanes, and then there was the late tornado in western Kentucky in December, and then the floods in eastern Kentucky, and it never stops. … We expect, this fall, to be probably in 12 different locations, if not more.

He came to disaster relief after doing international development with Mennonite Central Committee. He worked with farmers in Brazil during a severe drought, and then during an assignment in Jamaica in 1988, Hurricane Gilbert hit.

KING: I guess that was God's way of preparing me for this role.

While anybody can volunteer with MDS, regardless of their faith background, I was curious to hear how being a Mennonite organization informs what they do.

KING: A handshake and our word should be enough. Our quality of construction – I often say, we don't allow the phrase, "ah, it's good enough," or "it's better than they had before." No, we build as if it's for us. Do to others as you would have them do to you. … We come as strangers and we leave as friends.

Paul Hunt
Beverly Delp works in an office in Paradise.

Their services are totally free to these communities, and are funded entirely through donations and grants. Sometimes the work takes years. The Delps did a stint in Paradise, California earlier this year, where the 2018 "Camp Fire" killed 85 people and destroyed 18,000 homes. MDS is building new houses for some of those who didn't have insurance – many of whom are on fixed incomes, and can't afford it.

BEVERLY DELP: So this long afterwards, I think what hit me was being three and a half years after the fires occurred, still seeing people live in a small camper behind their houses, and crowded in, just all their belongings – the few belongings they had crowded in with pets, et cetera.

LAVERNE DELP: … You'll see a lot of empty lots with a driveway and maybe the foundation of a house, the slab, and maybe some burned up lawn furniture in the backyard. … And you could be driving down the road and you could see where a car had burned – there's still a black spot on the road.

Volunteers from the Shenandoah Valley unit are currently responding to flood damage in Hurley, Va.; Crisfield, Md., and southern West Virginia. To learn more, visit mds.org.

Randi B. Hagi first joined the WMRA team in 2019 as a freelance reporter. Her writing and photography have been featured in The Harrisonburg Citizen, where she previously served as the assistant editor; as well as The Mennonite; Mennonite World Review; and Eastern Mennonite University's Crossroads magazine.