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Mississippi church leaders look to long haul for recovery

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Courtesy of AP/Rob Carr

Rhonda Braden walks through the destruction in her childhood neighborhood in Long Beach, Miss.
Sept. 1, 2005

By Woody Woodrick*

JACKSON, Miss. (UMNS) — United Methodist leaders in Mississippi have started assessing their role in helping the state recover from the devastation left by Hurricane Katrina.

Bishop Hope Morgan Ward called district superintendents, disaster relief coordinators, conference staff, and others to Jackson Aug. 31 to begin laying the groundwork for what is expected to be years of assistance that will be needed.

Katrina slammed into Mississippi and Louisiana on Aug. 29. More than 100 are known dead in Mississippi, and the number is expected to increase. Massive destruction along the Mississippi coast line has left tens of thousands homeless. Damage has reached across the length and breadth of the state.

Power remained out as far north as Philadelphia, Miss., some 200 miles north of the gulf, Aug. 31. Immediate response also was hampered by gasoline shortages. Some stations with gas had no power, and shortages were reported around the state.

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The Rev. Tom Hazelwood
Those at the Aug. 31 meeting included the Rev. Tom Hazelwood, disaster response coordinator for the United Methodist Committee on Relief.

As Ward told those at the meeting to remember — and to remind local churches — that “UMCOR is us.” She emphasized that the work UMCOR will do over the next several months and even years will be done by United Methodists.

The bishop asked about the status of pastors serving in the hardest-hit areas. The Rev. Jerry Beam, Seashore District superintendent, said he had been in contact, either directly or indirectly, with nearly half of his pastors. It is believed most of the pastors evacuated the area, but contacting pastors and others in the coastal counties has been hampered by the destruction of communications infrastructure.

Most of the damage appears to be in the Seashore, Hattiesburg and Meridian districts, although damage is evident in the Brookhaven District, according to district superintendents at the meeting.

In the Hattiesburg and Meridian districts, downed trees caused widespread power outages. Hattiesburg, about 70 miles north of the gulf, was hit by hurricane-force winds. Communication is possible in most areas. The power outage forced the University of Southern Mississippi, located in Hattiesburg, to suspend classes indefinitely.

The Meridian District also reported mostly damage from falling trees. While that might take weeks to clear, the Rev. Andy Ray, superintendent, indicated the damage was not catastrophic.

That was not the case in the Seashore District. Access to the area was severely limited, as Red Cross and government official conduct search-and-rescue operations. News reports indicated some towns on the coast are simply gone. Katrina’s storm surge wiped out homes, businesses and lives.

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Web-only image courtesy of S. Carpenter

A fallen tree in Bogue Chitto, Miss. shows the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
United Methodist facilities were not immune. Reports say Leggett Memorial United Methodist Church in Biloxi, which faced the beach, is “gone.” Seashore Assembly, a retreat facility next to Leggett, lost all of its buildings except the cafeteria. Seashore personnel Art Steinaway and Scott Carter were reportedly serving Red Cross-provided meals from the facility. Arlean Hall, a building owned by United Methodist Women on the Seashore campus, was reported to be heavily damaged.

Seashore Retirement Community, owned by Mississippi Methodist Senior Services Inc. and located near Seashore Assembly, sustained serious damage. Some 58 residents and a few staff members rode out the storm there, but the residents are now being transferred to other Senior Services facilities in the state.

Another church in the Biloxi area, Safe Harbor United Methodist Church, and its parsonage are reported to be destroyed.

Gulfside Assembly, a historic retreat center belonging to the Southeastern Jurisdiction in Waveland — west of Biloxi — is presumed to have sustained heavy damage. The eye of the storm passed over Waveland, and reports say the small community “has been flattened.”

Two Seashore pastors who evacuated north attended the meeting: the Rev. Jim Genesse of Long Beach (Miss.) First United Methodist Church and the Rev. Paul Knight of Gateway United Methodist Church in Gulfport.

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Bishop Hope Morgan Ward
Genesse reported that one of his church members flew over the Long Beach area, and that the First Church secretary managed to reach the building. Their reports indicated the building was standing and appeared to have minimal roof damage. It was unclear whether the church, which just opened a new building, had structural damage.

Knight said he could get no word on the condition of Gateway Church or his home. On the eastern end of the coast, Pascagoula First United Methodist Church sustained damage and its parsonage has been destroyed. More reports are expected.

Ward, Hazelwood and others with the Mississippi Conference were scheduled to inspect damage in Meridian and Hattiesburg Sept. 1. Ward said she hopes to make a trip to the Gulf Coast as soon as possible.

Immediate needs for the Gulf Coast are ice, food and water. Government organizations have trucks arriving daily, but need is expected to be greater than supply.

Acknowledging the eagerness of many United Methodists to assist, the Rev. Jeff Pruett, conference disaster response coordinator, said the Gulf Coast was not ready for work teams.

However, other areas in the Meridian and Hattiesburg districts that sustained tree damage could use help sooner. All teams from Mississippi and teams from out of state wanting to work in the coming weeks and months, can contact the conference office toll-free at (866) 647-7486 (866-MISS4UM) or contact Pruett, or (662) 541-5900. Early response teams from outside Mississippi should contact MERCI Center at (888) 440-9167.

As the recovery progresses, Pruett said UMCOR needs flood buckets and health kits, and he encouraged churches and groups that want to help immediately to begin putting together those items. He said cash donations were also needed.

Ward said all United Methodists can provide three things immediately: prayer, gifts and volunteers.

“Go and do,” she said. “Be creative. Make a commitment with someone you know who has been hurt by this storm.”

Donations to support the United Methodist response to the Hurricane Katrina tragedy can be made online at and by phone at (800) 554-8583. Checks can be written to UMCOR, designated for “Hurricanes 2005 Global,” Advance No. 982523, and left in church offering plates or mailed directly to UMCOR, P.O. Box 9068, New York, NY 10087-9068.

*Woodrick is editor of the Mississippi Advocate, the newspaper of the United Methodist Church’s Mississippi Annual Conference.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or

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2005 Hurricane Response: United Methodist Committee on Relief

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