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Lutheran Disaster Response

Transformative Waters: The Flooding of the Umatilla River


“Water represents an integral link in a world view where water is sacred and extremely important in preserving precious balance. Water is the origin of and essential for the survival of all life.”

Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indians


Water is crucial to our survival. But water can also be destructive. During a multi-day warm-up in February 2020, melting snow and heavy rains caused the Umatilla River and its tributaries to overflow their banks. They damaged homes and buildings in the Blue Mountain region of Oregon and Washington, which includes Columbia and Walla Walla counties in Washington and Umatilla County and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Oregon.

On both sides of the Umatilla river – Oregon and Washington – multiagency relief centers (MARCs) assembled in the days after the flood. At these locations, residents received immediate, relief  assistance and registered for long-term recovery support from various relief organizations. The state of Oregon declared an emergency and sent funding to each of the affected communities. FEMA offered both public and individual assistance in the days after the flooding. As the Washington side was less affected, they didn’t qualify for any FEMA assistance. In total, 579 homes were damaged, according to Charlene Larsen, a longtime volunteer and associate of the Lutheran Disaster Response network in Oregon and a leader in the Oregon Synod Disaster Preparedness and Response network.


Damage was great and so was the need for a long-term recovery group (LTRG), a common structure in the disaster response community that allows for a holistic response. Representatives from both sides of the river, as well as the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Oregon, came together to form the Blue Mountain LTRG. It’s a coalition of community organizations, with the local Lions Club, United Way of the Blue Mountains, Community Action Program of East Central Oregon, and the Blue Mountain Action Council involved. The LTRG also includes ecumenical partners and has disaster services from Lutherans, Methodists, Mennonites, Presbyterians, and Seventh-day Adventists represented.

One of the members of the Blue Mountain LTRG is Pastor Joel Ley of Christ Lutheran Church in Walla Walla, Washington, representing the Northwest Intermountain Synod of the ELCA. About the assortment of organizations in the group, he says “We’ve got all these people represented at the table and it’s pretty impressive because that doesn’t always happen. People dig in and do the work and that’s really nice to see.”

By joining forces, the group could do things that one organization on its own could not. Larsen told one story about how members of the Blue Mountain LTRG worked together to get a couple a new pair of recliners. A couple living in a mobile home lost their set of matching recliner chairs and didn’t have the funds to replace them, so a disaster case manager brought the situation to the unmet needs committee. An unmet needs committee focuses on helping people address needs not covered by insurance or FEMA money. One of the members of the committee found an identical set of recliners in Washington and another representative from the committee offered to pick them up. At the home of the couple, yet another member was there to help unload them. The community spirit was present, now on an even bigger scale.


2020 was also an unprecedented year for wildfires in the Pacific Northwest. While the fires didn’t affect the same area impacted by the February floods, the Blue Mountain LTRG was in a position to assist other groups in the state. They shared “all the documents we put in place for bylaws and recovery efforts, talking about different committees that need to be in place,” said Larsen, speaking about the process for forming a long-term recovery group. Last February, the Blue Mountain LTRG formed with assistance from another disaster recovery group in Oregon and the wildfires gave them the opportunity to pay it forward and share their knowledge with newly formed disaster groups.

As with all disasters this past year, COVID-19 has affected the recovery process. Doing one-on-one in-person case management interviews became impossible. Rebuilding and repairing homes is more challenging than normal because volunteers are discouraged, and contractors are difficult to find. When it is possible to safely bring in volunteers, they will be busy doing small repairs, especially on fences, wells, septic tanks, and irrigation systems on agricultural land.


People in the area are independent – when in trouble, they believe that their family and neighbors will take care of them. Early in the recovery process, there was a lack of trust by residents for organizations that came to support them, said Larsen. But over time, that trust grew. Out of the original 579 cases, over 300 have been closed. However, many remain open, and for that reason, the Oregon Synod recently received a grant from LDR to continue case management for survivors. The grant will help fund an AmeriCorps position. The staff member  will serve as a case manager and assist with the formation of a Community Organizations Active in Disaster (COAD) for the Blue Mountain region. The COAD is an extension of the existing Blue Mountain LTRG. By building upon the relationships formed during the relief and recovery phases of the flooding, the COAD is preparing to respond to the next disaster right away and in so doing, contributing towards the community’s disaster resilience.


Catalyst. That’s the world Larsen used to describe the role of Lutheran Disaster Response in the Umatilla flood response and recovery efforts. An LDR-supported Oregon Synod Disaster Preparedness and Response network has been working to spread awareness about the importance of being ready for a disaster. At the time of its formation, its main concern was the Cascadia earthquake expected to hit the region at some point. But preparedness quickly turned into response, first with the Umatilla floods, then COVID-19 and wildfires. While there was still much to do to respond to the flooding, the Oregon Synod had a slight head start.

“LDR  is the catalyst in getting that going and now others are supporting with their funds. So, it takes one catalyst to get it started and, in this case, it was LDR,” said Larsen.

The importance of disaster preparedness was one of the biggest takeaways by both Larsen and Ley. In the Blue Mountain region, there was no preparation for flooding, or any other disaster, except for the early stages of the Oregon Synod Disaster Preparedness and Response network. The Blue Mountain LTRG had to form in the midst of the disaster. Ley said that it would be easier if relationships between the organizations were built beforehand. They both realize how unprepared the region was for disasters last February. A year later, with organizations coming together to form the Blue Mountain LTRG and COAD, they are confident in their readiness for the next disaster.


Water can give life and take away life. But water can also transform life. The waters of the Umatilla River transformed the Blue Mountain region. They brought different communities and organizations together to help everyone. They led to the establishment of an LTRG and COAD, which formed new relationships and strengthened old ones. The waters led to a transformation of how the region thought about disasters, preparedness, and the importance of long-term recovery.

“LDR has always billed itself as being in for the long haul and I had taken that message in, but I didn’t realize how important that was,” said Ley. “You do the initial work, but there’s a lot of stuff that hangs out there for a long time and without long-term commitment from LDR and other partners, there would just be a lot of issues that wouldn’t be addressed.”

In all responses, LDR strives to transform lives. From immediate relief to long-term recovery, LDR is present to support survivors and communities as they rebuild their homes and lives. Around the United States and around the world, communities impacted by disasters are transforming and becoming more resilient, ready for the next disaster.

Field Report: Missouri River Valley and Minot North Dakota

Missouri River flooding in Sioux City: Photo Credit FEMA

Dear Sisters and Brothers:

I am Kevin Massey, Program Director for Lutheran Disaster Response.  I’m in Minot North Dakota this week connecting with these flood affected communities and people that I met last month when I was here.  Volunteer operations are underway to help clean up and plan for repair and rebuilding a little down the road.  Information about how you can help is below.

But first, I began my travels last week visiting communities along the Missouri River.  The ELCA Western Iowa Synod organized workshops at St. John Lutheran Church in Council Bluffs Iowa and at Augustana Lutheran Church in Sioux City Iowa.  We gathered Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Assembly of God pastors from Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota serving in communities that have lived all spring and summer under the threat of flooding.

When I was driving from Council Bluffs Iowa to Sioux City Iowa, I had to follow a detour to avoid a portion of Interstate 29 that is closed due to flooding.  I remembered how nearly six months ago I stood on an overpass of this same Interstate 29 north of Fargo and saw it underwater.  So many communities have spent months and months enduring flooding that seems endless.

From the Missouri River Valley I flew to Minot North Dakota.  When I was in Minot a month ago the water was still up and we hadn’t been able to assess yet the damages to so many homes, churches, and business.  The water is down now, and the results of catastrophic and heart breaking.  Thousands of people remain displaced.  Thousands of homes are ruined, some beyond repair. 

I delivered cleaning supplies to a volunteer group working on gutting out a flooded home in Minot.  This home is across the corner from Christ Lutheran Church.   I met three wonderful Lutheran volunteers working at this home.   Dennis and Diane Wiesenborn, members of St. John Lutheran Church in Fargo and Vic Voth, a member of Concordia Lutheran Church in Red Wing Minnesota were working on gutting out the home of a Minot couple in their eighties. 

Pictured left to right: Diane Wiesenborn, Vic Voth, and Dennis Wiesenborn.

These wonderful volunteers are what this ministry is all about.  Lutherans from around the country give so much to love and serve their neighbors.

Later I visited the flooded home of Pastor Heather Brown and her husband David Iversen  in Minot.  Pastor Brown serves the Trinity Lutheran Parish of Glenburn and Lansford North Dakota north of Minot.  Pastor Brown’s home was flooded two feet over the first story. Heather described the generosity and hard work of parishioners of her parish who pitched in and accomplished the necessary gutting of the home.  Pastor Brown and her husband are arranging to live in a FEMA trailer on the property of one of the parishioners until repairs to their home can be accomplished.  Heather shared, “We could not have made it through this without our wonderful parishioners!”

Pastor Heather Brown at her flooded home in Minot

I admired Pastor Brown for her courage and optimism in the face of her loss.  She described that so many people lost more and have harder rebuilding ahead of them.  She brings a sense of hope that even though many face hard work, they are not alone.

Please pray for the people of all the areas of North Dakota that have been affected by this catastrophic flooding.  Many worry about being forgotten and we can remember them continuously in our prayers.  We pray also for those affected by many other disasters, such as tornados across the country in places like Joplin Missouri and Cullman Alabama. 

While volunteer operations in many parts of the country are still unfolding, Lutheran Disaster Response in North Dakota is ready to host volunteer groups from the region and outside the region to help in clean up in Minot and other communities affected by flooding.  Please share this opportunity with your local Lutheran congregations and organizations. 

 To register call: 218-443-4970 .  You can also go to and complete the Clean-up Volunteer Form and fax it to 701-298-7763 . Volunteers are asked to get an updated tetanus shot and are required to wear long pants and thick soled boots or shoes on site.
Information about housing for groups is available when you call to register.  Available housing is austere and volunteers are also invited to camp in tents while volunteering.  Tools that would be helpful, but not required to bring include:
  • Rubber boots/rubber gloves
  • Work gloves
  • Goggles or safety glasses
  • N-95 masks or any mask that has two straps on it
  • Hammers
  • Brooms
  • Large buckets
  • Pliers
  • Wonderbars or crowbars. 
People across the country responding to these floods also need financial support to clean up and rebuild.  Consider giving a gift to help these neighbors in need. Thank you for your prayers and your partnership in this ministry.
In Christ,
Rev. Kevin A. Massey
Program Director

Thanks be to God – Cyclone Yasi, threatening Australia, was a “fizzer”

The Editor of The Lutheran (Australia), Linda Macqueen, sent a positive message this afternoon regarding Cyclone Yasi that was threatening the northeast coast of Australia.  At one point, the storm was listed as a category 5, with some weather reports suggesting the size of the storm system to be roughly twice the size of Hurricane Katrina.  The eastern coastal region of Australia is currently recovering from record setting floods. ~Megan

Cairns and Townville, the major regional centres of North Queensland, have been spared from the anticipated massive destruction of Category 5 Cyclone Yasi, which crossed the coast at around midnight last night. Lutherans from those communities reported this morning that, while they experienced an uneasy night, the cyclone did not appear to be anything out of the ordinary.

“Thanks be to God that the cyclone did not cross the coast at a highly populated area’, LCA Queensland District President Noel Noack, said this morning. ‘While we feel for the people directly in its path, who have lost homes and property, we can thank God that there were no lives lost.’

This was the first cyclone Pastor Lou and Hazel Pfeiffer of Townsville had experienced. During the preparations they had felt anxious, but during the cyclone they were not afraid. ‘We were even relaxed enough to play cards’, said Hazel.

General Church Council member David Spanagel, of Cairns, said that he and wife Pam didn’t feel they needed to go to their bunker at any stage during the cyclone. At around midnight they felt that it posed no danger to them and they went to bed. ‘Here in Cairns, we’ve dodged a bullet’, he said.

There are small Lutheran communities at Mission Beach and Tully, which took the full blunt of Yasi, but at this stage it is not known how they fared.

Written by: Linda Macqueen, Editor of The Lutheran (Australia)

Brazilian Floods: ACT Partners Respond

Car's piled up after the flood. ACT/FLD/Adelcio Kronbauer

The Brazilian floods earlier this month left wake of natural devastation with standing water and mudslides burying cars, homes and anything else that got in the way. Along side this natural disaster was the human tragedy of 650 lost lives and many of the survivors left without shelter or food.

In an effort to meet these needs ACT Alliance members have been traveling as quickly as possible to villages and cities to distribute physical and spiritual support.  As I read through the report I was pleased to see that they are working together and setting up support committees to make an orderly response.

God’s people doing God’s work with God’s wisdom.

To learn more read the full ACT Alliance report.

Australian Floods: God’s People Respond

Flooding in Queensland. Image from LCA

Earlier this month the Australian state of Queensland, composing the northeast portion of the country, was hit with major flooding along its eastern sea border. It was considered some of the worst flooding the area has seen in over 35 years.  In reading the news coming out from the area I’m reminded of Katrina and the devastation ravaged on New Orleans.  What also reminded me of Katrina is reading about how the local churches and population as well as people from across the county have been volunteering time and talents to help those affected by the flood.

Below are two articles written by Linda MacQueen, editor of the Lutheran Church in Australia’s (LCA) magazine The Lutheran. The first one highlights the personal story of Trevor Ruthenberg as he lends a helping hand. The second describes how local churches are playing an immediate role while still looking forward to how they can address the long-term needs caused by the flooding.

Trevor’s Story: After Rains, Love Reigns

Role of Local Churches: Congregations Will Support Victims For Long Haul

To read more stories check out the LCA site’s coverage of the flooding and response: Floods Disaster 2011

The Lutheran Church of Australia responds to Queensland Floods

Flood waters continue in the Australian state of Queensland.  The Lutheran Church of Australia is responding to those in need.  You may be interested in checking out the Australia Floods video produced by the Lutheran Church of Australia.  Check out the ELCA Disaster Website

Lutheran Church of Australia office in Queensland.

to see more information on LCA’s response and ways to contribute.  I am also including in this post a letter from LCA pastor James Haak who lives in a community devistated by the floods…

Just a few words to update you with how things are in the Lockyer Valley.

At the end of the week, most of the waters have now receded below minor flood levels and people are commencing the difficult task of cleaning up. In the eastern end of the valley in Laidley and surrounding areas such as Forest Hill, getting rid of the mud and silt that entered homes and drying things out has become a priority. The Laidley manse did have water enter the garage, but not the manse itself. In the western areas, the town of Grantham and its environs still remains a no go area. Police still have the area declared a crime scene as they, the SES, and the military continue the task of searching for bodies in the flood debris. Many of the parish who live in the Grantham and Helidon areas were affected in some way by flooding. I know of one parish member whose house has been totally lost with many more in the parish having lost all or some of their possessions to the waters. Cleaning up is only part of the story as it will take many months for farmers to begin receiving an income again. We are grateful that, to date, it appears that the Lutheran community has been spared any loss of life, but in such a small community as Grantham, many personally know one or more of those who have died.

For those of us who were spared flooding, the worse thing remains the inconvenience as many roads remain closed and even basic necessities such as bread, milk and fuel are in short supply. Local supermarkets are still restricting quantities of the necessities that people can purchase.

We thank our God for your expressions of care and support during this difficult time, and are grateful that we have been spared from an even worse disaster.

In Christ,
Pastor James Haak