Kevin King

Kevin King, executive director of Mennonite Disaster Service in Lititz, is shown in his office in a 2012 file photo.

Kevin King can juggle hurricanes.

King, executive director for Mennonite Disaster Service, says the 2004 hurricane season was good practice, when Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne each pummeled Florida in turn.

“They kept coming, one after another,” King recalls. “They pretty much beat up Florida.”

Then, in 2005, Katrina set a new bar for devastation, he says.

So he’s feeling pretty confident that Mennonite Disaster Service, an international relief agency with headquarters in Lititz, is ready for Irma to make a Florida landfall this weekend — even though the group still has boots on the ground in Texas, where Hurricane Harvey struck last week.

“We are utilizing all of our training from the past,” King said Thursday. “We have activated all of our procedures and plans. “Even before Harvey, we had committed to long-term rebuilding efforts in seven locations in the United States and Canada.”

That includes the Lake County region in California, which was struck by wildfires in 2015, and the Pine Ridge area of South Dakota, which was hit by tornadoes and flooding in 2015 and 2016.

“Once Harvey hit, we began ramping up fast ... to purchase the capital assets to run three more long-term projects,” King says.

They hope to raise $900,000 for the purchase of tools, trailers and other gear that will help their volunteers keep working, he says.

“There are three main phases after a major hurricane,” King explains. “The first phase is search and rescue. That’s not us. Then there’s the ‘muck and gut’ phase — mucking out after a storm, gutting homes, pulling out wet drywall and furniture, tarping roofs, removing debris. That’s where we are right now in Texas.

“And then there’s the long-term recovery, which can last from a year to seven years. Katrina was seven years.”

Give cash, not stuff

Residents of areas devastated by Harvey are still picking through the pieces in the aftermath of that storm. With Irma, a Category 5 hurricane with sustained wind of 185 mph, expected to slam into the Florida coast this weekend, relief organizations are preparing to refocus their efforts.

Greta Gustafson, a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross, reminded charitable givers that cash is more helpful than goods.

“We know Americans are generous and want to do everything they can to help after a disaster,” she said in a recent statement. “Unfortunately, collecting and sending food, clothing and other household items often does more harm than good.”

“Cash is best,” King agrees. “You don’t have to inventory it, warehouse it, ship it or sort it. Plus, it stimulates the local economy” in areas recovering from a disaster.

For instance, he explains, volunteers are buying tarps in Texas “rather than buying them elsewhere ... and hiring trucks to ship them down.”

‘Neighbors helping neighbors’

When Irma strikes Florida, King says, a regional team from Sarasota will begin immediate relief efforts.

“They’re our first responders — neighbors helping neighbors,” he says.

Volunteer crews from other areas, such as Lancaster, will head down as soon as its safe to go in, he says.

Sending volunteers and resources to Florida does not mean efforts will be curtailed elsewhere, King says. Each disaster area has its own response teams, and the needs of one don’t affect the supplies of the others.

“I suspect Irma will generate a whole new group of volunteers,” King says. “Especially from Lancaster County.”

There was some consideration of expanding relief efforts in Texas, “but I said we needed to hold off until we saw what Irma does,” he says. “We can’t put all our eggs in one basket. And man, that was a hard decision.”

More than two dozen volunteers are in Texas, he notes — teams are rotated in and out of the region each week.

“In that heat? It’s necessary,” King says. “The mosquitoes are absolutely horrendous. I’ve never seen conditions like this before.”

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