Baptist Disaster Relief program models efficiency, effectiveness

Sam Porter, director of Baptist Disaster Relief, in Oklahoma says his group’s operations are much less expensive than might be expected. 

“The only promise I get is for my salary and basic administrative costs. That comes from normal Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma (BGCO) offerings. The annual budget is adjusted based on need. In other words, we respond when disasters happen, and 100 percent of the additional money goes to relief,” he told CapitolBeatOK. 

Ten days into perhaps the largest tornado response effort in American history, Porter explained the current programs in his home state by describing previous efforts elsewhere: “This past year, from a basic budget of $50,000 we actually spent $500,000 because we were so heavily involved in Colorado, New Mexico, Louisiana and New Jersey/New York. When Hurricane Sandy hit, we had a peak of 105 volunteers from Oklahoma in Middletown, New Jersey.

“When our work in New Jersey was finished, we deployed into Long Island, and then into Brooklyn. Initially we were feeding a lot of people and helping in those practical ways at the start. Later, in Brooklyn, we had a lot of energy devoted to clearing out those buildings where everything was ruined — chain saw teams, for example. I rotated people in and out as I needed them. From the highest number of 105 volunteers, we dropped off to a couple dozen. Everywhere we went we had our trucks where local people could take showers and clean up.”

Describing how such a program, sponsored by BGCO (better known as the Southern Baptists), gets financed, he said, “All of the above. When we roll equipment out the door after … a disaster, our churches and individuals know we will begin incurring costs because we’ve explained that to them.

“We get lots of small gifts, but we also get expressions of confidence like the owner of the Houston Texans sending us $100,000. Our volunteers and everyone are high integrity people when we work with the tornado survivors. We never have to advertise, not one penny. Our church members and others just begin to step up when they know we are going into the field. That’s how we pay our bills.”

Right now, there are portable shower stations around Moore, and some of the other communities impacted by the May 19-20 storms. Porter explained these stations have become a regular part of disaster relief for his group: “We always stay until, as a practical matter, we’re not needed any more. Right now, we have a steady pace of people using the showers. We use our judgment. Later, when the number gets down to just 4 or 5 a day, we’ll wrap things.”

Concerning food operations, “We have developed some specialization. The Red Cross has emergency relief vehicles, the Salvation Army has canteens. We are cooking the food.

“We get the food into individualized containers to keep it hot and fresh. It is then transported by those agencies to the places of need. The Red Cross has 20 vehicles, the Salvation Army has 12. Right now all of those are going full steam. We have prepared 60,000 meals since last Monday.”

Then, there are church sites that operate as sort of temporary department stores, with hardware supplies, clothing and non-perishable foods: “It’s clothing and other things. In this storm, thousands of people essentially lost everything, their homes and all or most of their possessions. We essentially have cooperative relationships now with all the churches in every town, regardless of denomination.

“I’m estimating right now about 30 churches have become, for the time being, a neighborhood hardware market, with food and clothing as well. This effort, again across all denominations and churches, has had a huge impact. We’ve got water, food, diapers, clothing. Most of this is new, purchased from around here.

“In an emergency sense, no one we touch is lacking for anything they need. This system exists right now from Newcastle in the west, along the storm line through Moore and Little Axe and Shawnee, then on to McCloud.” 

He recalls that it was the head of the state Baptist Convention, Dr. Anthony Jordan, who slowly drew him out of pastoral work and into relief services: 

“I was a pastor for 20 years. When I was a pastor 1984-95 at Bartlesville Southern Baptist, I volunteered my church to be involved in disaster relief. We worked on tornadoes, floods and rebuilding the homes of church members.

“Dr. Jordan knew what I was doing in Bartlesville, and how we had gotten church members in the pews involved in this kind of work. He asked me to get more people involved, and then I began to work with the 1,800 churches in our Convention.”

Porter spent a good portion of last year out-of-state, much of it while responding to Hurricane Sandy. It looks like he will be working in Moore, Oklahoma, for some time to come.

You may contact Patrick B. McGuigan at and follow us on Twitter: @capitolbeatok.