Disaster Response, Then and Now

July 15, 2015
Story by Betty Backstrom

Ella Doyle lifts her head in prayer and tells fellow parishioners to “hold your head up” during an outdoor worship service at Hartzell Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in Slidell, La. The church’s sanctuary was ruined by the Aug. 29, 2005 storm surge from Hurricane Katrina. Doyle rode out the storm in a boat with her husband and two sons. 9/26/05 A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.
 
When it comes to disasters, Louisiana has had more than a few opportunities to hone its response efforts. But two catastrophic hurricanes in 2005, two more in 2008 and an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico served as the primary stages on which response efforts in the state jumped to new heights—at governmental, institutional and church levels.
 
Through a partnership with United Methodist Committee on Relief, the Louisiana Annual Conference dramatically grew its disaster response ministry in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. “UMCOR worked with us, giving us the guidance and  training to take responsibility for our own relief and recovery work. They showed us how to form partnerships with other religious and secular organizations to pool resources and avoid duplicating efforts. UMCOR provided us with more than $26,000,000 to assist with the vast amount of humanitarian work that was accomplished, and helped us set up a case management system that allowed us to help those most in need due to lack of income or insurance,” said Rev. Darryl Tate, who led the disaster recovery ministry for the Louisiana Conference at that time.
 
The response needs were so great that a group of storm recovery stations were established to focus on the response in specific geographical areas of the state. The Westbank, Uptown, Eastbank and Slidell storm recovery stations organized Katrina response efforts in the New Orleans and Northshore areas while the Abbeville and Lake Charles stations focused primarily on response to the devastation caused by Hurricane Rita.
 
Virginia Tech students Lisa Rubin (left) and Rachel St. John 
help gut the interior of Ernest Franklin’s home in
New Orleans during their spring vacation. The group
was one of several working  through the
Louisiana United Methodist Storm Recovery Center.
A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose. 3/8/06
When the dust finally settled, more than 107,000 volunteers working in excess of 5,700,000 hours were able to muck out, rebuild and repair  more than 112,000 homes that were damaged or destroyed by the storms. Volunteers came from throughout Louisiana, from  every state in the union and from all over the globe to help the citizens of Louisiana get back “to normal.” “Without volunteers, there is no disaster ministry,” said the late Rev. Connie Thomas, who served as manager of volunteers during part of the response to Hurricanes Rita and Katrina.
 
The Slidell storm recovery station, originally housed in buildings owned by Aldersgate United Methodist Church, has evolved into what is now The Epworth Project, a long-term recovery organization for St. Tammany and Washington parishes. “The Epworth Center, built on the grounds of Aldersgate UMC, is one of two permanent facilities that were built to house storm recovery volunteers. A second facility is located on property beside the Dulac Community Center,” said Rev. Don Cottrill, provost. “Local churches throughout the state housed volunteers for many years.  It seemed best to build these two permanent sites since the need for volunteers in these areas of Louisiana were viewed as long term, with the need beyond hurricane recovery.”
 
The Epworth Project at Northshore Disaster Recovery, Inc. is a nondenominational, faith-based organization striving to “bring hope and comfort” to those considered to be “the least, the last and the lost.” The project has assisted 7,631 clients and hosted more than 56,000 volunteers who have repaired 2,447
Epworth Project volunteers are pictured with
client outside his “home in progress”
homes.
 
Clients are typically those who have been adversely affected by storms as well as veterans, the elderly and the disabled. They usually fall into a low-income bracket. Effective case management is the foundation of this program that assists area residents with home building and repair using volunteer labor. Clients can also receive help with emergency housing, food and utilities.
 
Dale Kimball, executive director of the project, believes that “volunteers are the cornerstone and lifeblood of disaster recovery.” “Volunteers are the emissaries of hope and peace to those we serve,” said Kimball. “We believe that all, regardless of age or skill level, are divinely equipped to make a difference in the world.”
 
Sometimes it is difficult to feel the impact made on individual lives when looking only at statistics and numbers. Put faces and names to those statistics, and it is easy to understand the difference made through this kind of ongoing recovery work. “In just a week’s worth of volunteer work, Miss Terrie can now leave her home for the first time in four months because of her new handicapped ramp. Mr. George, who is wheelchair bound, can now access his back yard without worrying about snakes and animals. Mr. Landry has access to his entire home for the first time since it was flooded by Hurricane Isaac. And the list goes on,” said Kimball.
 
Volunteers working through The Epworth Project
help to complete building interior
Money is needed to complete their work, so fund development is another important task for the Epworth Project board of directors, which draws from local pastors and business professionals. Help from civic organizations, public grants, and corporate and private donations comprise a large part of the funds raised to support the work of the project. Remarkably, the largest amount of money raised comes from the volunteers who give of their time and effort to serve as the “boots on the ground.” “The generosity of the folks who have come time and again, giving of their own personal resources, is a constant source of inspiration,” said Kimball.
 
Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.” That is the truth that is found at the center of the response to the hurricanes, the oil spill and in any act of kindness to help another person. Bishop William Hutchinson, Louisiana’s episcopal leader during those years, wrote in a newspaper column, “That’s the story of the millions of dollars, the thousands of workers, the multitude of letters and phone calls, and the countless hours of prayer that have been given to and for us, the people of Louisiana. And we have done our part of trying to help ourselves—churches opening their doors and lives to brothers and sisters in need . . .”