By Dan Steinbeck and Tharran Gaines
The island of Maui has been anything but a dream vacation for volunteers with Missouri Baptist Disaster Relief who recently traveled to Hawaii to help with personal property recovery. Granted, they saw some beautiful sites, but they also witnessed first-hand the devastation left behind by the massive wildfire that swept through the town of Lahaina earlier this year. In response, Missouri Baptist Disaster Relief deployed two separate teams to the area where the summer wildfires claimed a hundred lives.
Chris Houghtaling, from First Baptist Church of Blue Springs, led the first team of 11 volunteers to Hawaii on November 8-22, while the second team, which served from December 6-20, was led by Richard Brummitt, with Northland Baptist Church in Kansas City. During their orientation, the Hawaii Disaster Relief Director emphasized that the teams’ primary assignment was to minister to the people by listening to their stories, encouraging them and loving them. Digging and sifting for valuables and keepsakes was their secondary function.
Still, both teams frequently took on the task of sifting through burned property seeking something of value to the homeowners. Needless to say, the work was hot and difficult, but rewarding when they saw the joy expressed by homeowners when the team was able to locate sentimental items and return them to the owners. Property recovered included wedding rings, class rings, casual rings, neck chains, bracelets and other jewelry, ceramic bowls, cups and statuary, and a number of coins, including silver dollars and even a few Krugerrands.
“This was the first time the areas were open to homeowners,” said Steve Russell. a blue hat (team leader) on the first team. “We simply put ashes in a sieve of screens over buckets and worked through it with our hands … the dust was so fine.”
Before homeowners could return, the burned area had to be searched for human remains, evaluated for the safety of any remaining standing structural features and undergo an EPA Phase 1 hazardous materials removal process. The areas also had to be checked for materials that are corrosive or toxic, such as paints, cleaners, propane tanks, ammunition, etc.
“During many disasters, we are helping the family prepare to recover by cutting trees off the buildings or cleaning up after a flood so they can get on with their lives.” Richard Brummitt, explained. “In a fire disaster, we are helping a family grieve the loss of everything they own, including their home. Hurricanes may blow away some homes, but wildfires destroy everything in their path.”
Both Brummitt and Houghtaling agreed that the teams’ mission wasn’t just about finding ‘stuff’. It was to walk alongside hurting people and to offer them help and hope as they faced their devastating loss.