Churches offer shelter, supplies in midst of county infernos

SAN DIEGO, Calif. — Safely sequestered in her son's San Marcos home, Anne Subia wondered what she would find in her evacuated Rancho Bernardo neighborhood. Not known for an idle phone or calendar, Subia was not one to sit still and wait. Instead, she did what she does best: network.

It would be days before the full extent of San Diego's 2007 firestorm would be assessed: Nearly 350,000 acres burned, more than 1,700 structures destroyed and nine deaths. At one point, 15 percent of the county's population was evacuated from their homes. In all, Cal Fire said costs associated with fighting the fires would top $60 million. The value of the property losses is estimated in excess of $2 billion.

The fires destroyed several Christian-based ministries, including In His Steps Recovery Center for Women in Ramona and several reservation churches in the North County. Rancho Bernardo Baptist Church, west of Interstate 15, suffered severe damage and the entire sanctuary has been gutted because of smoke and water damage. Fire crews managed to save the popular Indian Hills Camp in Jamul.

But even before the flames were contained, San Diego's Christian community, aided by Subia's extensive database, popped into action to help families coping with home loss and evacuation necessities. It was a scene eerily reminiscent of the 2003 Cedar and Paradise fires.

Subia, a member of Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster, was a key liaison for the Christian community during the 2003 fires. Her Rolodex, never dusty for lack of use, was pressed into overdrive again. This time she would be helping her neighbors. At least six homes on her street were destroyed. The entire community was among the most devastated with more than 400 homes lost there and in neighboring Rancho Santa Fe.


Combined forces
VOAD is a national relief organization with a chapter in San Diego. Its members include the Red Cross, The Salvation Army, United Way and numerous ham radio operators. Although a secular organization, Subia's job is to help coordinate the church response.

"In time of disaster, I will network and coordinate what the churches are doing," Subia said.

Having gone through this just four years ago, Subia said she noticed a marked difference in the response effort.

"Qualcomm Stadium (was) running like a well-oiled machine," she said of the largest evacuation site.

Evangelical churches, which provided in excess of $4 million in donations and volunteer hours in 2003, were quick to respond again.

"This is an opportunity for us to really be the hands and feet of Christ," Subia said. "They are really stepping up. They are not getting the press, but they are doing it and they are getting the job done."


Getting it done
Church efforts have earned praise from FEMA officials, Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Samaritan's Purse, the international relief organization led by Franklin Graham, sent 26 staff members to San Diego to operate three different assistance camps. Like other organizations, they also responded in 2003.

"We already had names and numbers," said Luther Harrison, regional director of the North America/Volunteer Teams. "The doors were opening as we were traveling here from North Carolina."

At the height of the fire, they put 300 local volunteers to work. The San Diego volunteer pool kept them from having to bring in workers from out of state. Long-term, using local volunteers benefits the recovery effort, Harrison said, because ongoing relationships are established between the recipient and the giver.

"That's the local people helping their community and neighbors," he said. "That way we can build a wall of trust."

Their main role in fire relief is to sift through the rubble and work beside the homeowner to get the property cleared and ready for rebuilding.

"Our goal was not to sift through the ash, our goal is for spiritual healing for what they've gone through," Harrison said. "We listen to their stories, we share their lives."

They also presented Bibles, signed by the local volunteers who often include reference to a favorite Scripture verse.

"They will realize it was not Samaritan's Purse (that did the work), it was the local church that provided the volunteers," the regional director said.

Because of a comprehensive debris removal plan in the city and county, Harrison said there is limited need for volunteers to sift and clear property. As a result, Samaritan's Purse folded up its Rancho Bernardo and Fallbrook camps Nov. 16 and headed back to the East Coast to prepare for the next disaster. Their Ramona camp will remain in operation at least through Dec. 1, Harrison said.


Doing the dirty work
Don Hargis, the disaster relief director for the California Southern Baptist Convention, said his organization, aided by Vision San Diego, has offered the equivalent of more than 10,000 volunteer days through operation of its five mobile kitchens, evacuation assistance and debris clean-up. As of Nov. 16, the group had cleared 42 lots on the La Jolla Indian reservation.

"They love us," he said. "They are very thankful for what we are doing there."

The group was expected to offer assistance at the Rincon reservation in the next few weeks.

"It was a great turnout by the church …we've had a lot of great impact," Hargis said.

Although the organization carries the Southern Baptist name, Hargis said local volunteers have included Presbyterians, Methodists, Assemblies of God—a wide range of denominational affiliations.

Other Christian responses have included the Convoy of Hope, which provided semi-trucks of emergency supplies, chaplain services through Horizon USA Emergency Management System Teams and Rescue Task Force provided thousands of dollars in airbeds, generators, clean up tools, hay and other essentials. The Salvation Army has also served as a lead agency working in tandem with the Red Cross and at least a dozen churches provided emergency shelter during evacuations.

"In general, it's a very visible, very obvious part of God drawing people together," Subia said, adding that she believes the relationships being fostered may be the first step in getting congregations to become more involved in cultural issues facing the community.

"In the meantime, a whole lot of churches have become aware of this and how they have to become prepared for disasters," she said. "God is using this for a reason, for whatever is ahead, to unite forces."

Harrison agreed.

"Usually in a disaster, that's when the church realizes it has to function as one body of believers," he said. "The church has the capacity to meet all of the needs. There is a hurting world out there and the church needs to get busy outside of the walls."