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home : commentary : columns November 23, 2017

Order from chaos: Learning from disasters' first responders

By Maureen Pratt | Catholic News Service

How do they do it?

I've asked that question countless times over the past several weeks as first responders and (extra)ordinary volunteers have jumped right in to help in the aftermath of recent, devastating hurricanes and earthquakes in the Caribbean, Mexico and the United States.

With no or severely damaged infrastructure and limited resources, these brave men and women have and still are performing amazing acts of heroism as they dig, carry and ferry by boat scores of men, women, young and old.

From the outside, such feats seem nearly impossible. When a place is fractured, as these islands and cities are, it can be easy to become lost or injured (or worse). The theaters in which rescue efforts take place are more dangerously chaotic than linear, so one can let his or her guard down, adding crushing stress on top of already-excruciating exertion.

Also, with so many hands on deck, so many agencies involved in these activities, it's a wonder those responding don't all tangle together instead of radiating upward and out in coordinated, effective effort.

Yet, despite the hardships and obstacles, these groups of true heroes work together effectively and seemingly without pause.

Again, "How do they do it?" And is there anything that we can learn from these very public group efforts that might help us when we endeavor to carry out projects in groups, too?

Unfortunately, I cannot be on the ground in Mexico or Texas to ask my question. But I have paid close attention to the images and interviews throughout the recent news coverage, and through it, I've come across some pieces of insight that, when sewn together, provide a kind of tapestry of an answer.

The first of these is that, from first hurricane warning to last and in the aftermath of the earthquake, the rescue workers' priority is life. Saving life, preserving life, finding life and taking that precious life to safety. There's no identification check, no quotas -- just absolute focus on life.

Sometimes when we put a group together to achieve a goal, we forget that each segment of the project and each task is carried out by a person, worthy of respect and, yes, safety, too. (A good reminder when we think about festooning high places in church with garlands at Christmas!)

Another lesson I've gleaned is that, although there are "big picture" tasks in any group (leaders, for example), no job is lowly because it enables that big goal to be achieved. I remember one interview with a woman at a shelter in Houston who was absolutely joy-filled at her job -- sorting and folding donated clothing for the refugees from Hurricane Harvey. Although her job might seem menial, it was part of a chain of assignments that would eventually lead to someone sopping wet being able to have dry clothes.

In all we seek to accomplish, if each person in a group is aware of and committed to the end goal, everyone can work with one another respectfully and joyfully, too!

The third lesson is twofold: The people who take on the awesome task of rescue, recovery and rebuilding are human. They need external support (prayer, encouragement, resources) and intervals of rest. And, although they do the hard labor, the presence of faith, hope and love weaves throughout.

Faith, that the skies will clear, the earth will still and the work will eventually become easier.

Hope, that one more handful of rubble, one more ferry ride across floodwaters will make a difference.

And love, that life is precious at every time and place, and, when passed from rescuer to rescued, from participant to observer, will never die. 

Pratt's website is

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