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Mississippi center coordinates disaster response

Mark Prince of Toms Brook (Va.) United Methodist Church makes repairs at the home of Barry Smith in Clermont Harbor, Miss. Since Hurricane Katrina, United Methodist rebuilding efforts in Mississippi have been coordinated by a disaster response center in Meridian. UMNS photos by Mike DuBose.

By Woody Woodrick*
Aug. 28, 2007 |  MERIDIAN, Miss. (UMNS)

Overcoming chaos that comes with widespread disaster takes perseverance. For nearly two years, the Rev. Chris Bowers has helped bring unity and continuity to The United Methodist Church’s response to Hurricane Katrina in Mississippi.

Bowers has coordinated the church's disaster response center in Meridian since it was organized in September 2005 by the Mississippi Annual (regional) Conference.

"The most important thing the center has been able to do is unify the response," Bowers said. "There was a lot of difference from how one (volunteer) camp worked to another. Each camp had a view of how things were going that was distinct from the others. The response center pulled everything together."

Beginning Sept. 1, Bowers will become associate pastor at Hattiesburg Main Street United Methodist Church. His departure from the center will come just a few days after the second anniversary of the storm on Aug. 29.

Making adjustments

Over the next several months, the call center will relocate from Meridian to the campus of Seashore Methodist Assembly retreat center in Biloxi. The move is part of the gradual reduction of resources expected by the response team.

The Rev. Theodore R. Williams Jr., pastor
of St. Paul United Methodist Church in
Pass Christian, Miss., surveys the
church's partially restored sanctuary.

Robert Sharp, director of the Mississippi United Methodist Katrina Response, said funding will start to drop off in April 2008. "We will be reducing structure," he said. "With the lessons we’ve learned in operations and procedures, I think we have a good handle on how to do this."

The United Methodist Committee on Relief has provided $7.4 million for the Mississippi response since Katrina, with another $2 million committed over the next two quarters and $2 million more expected for 2008.

Sharp cites three successes in the second year of the response effort. First, case managers have worked with families to find out their most pressing needs so they can get the help they need. Second, building warehouses has saved 50 percent on construction costs by allowing items to be purchased in bulk and stored. Third, volunteers have saved countless dollars in labor costs.

The work continues

"We’re still full bore," said Sharp. "We have 34,000 people still in FEMA trailers as the two-year anniversary approaches. Some of those are going to be a slow process to get back in homes."

Robert Herrmann of Bay Ridge United Methodist Church and Suzanne Young of Christ Church United Methodist in New York repair the interior of the Hanshaw family home in Biloxi, Miss.

Bowers is pleased with the number of volunteers who continue to come. "I’m surprised at this point we still have so many people coming. We’re still pretty much packed in at our camps through the end of the year, and January, February and even March are filling up," he said.

Many of the more than 40,000 volunteers who have scheduled trips through the center are making their second, third, fourth or even fifth trips to Mississippi. The work has begun to shift from repairing homes to completely rebuilding homes. Thus, the United Methodist Katrina Response team has begun working even more with other organizations, which Bowers said is "really awesome."

Hired to coordinate volunteer activity, Bowers admits the job was more complicated than he initially thought.

"My job description was to run this office and schedule where team leaders would go," he said. "That sounds simple, but it’s really not when you’re working with so many churches and organizations. I came on board with the idea of scheduling teams. In the end my job included purchasing buildings materials, paying bills and all sorts of things I never thought I would have to do."

As he prepares to move into more traditional ministry, Bowers says he has learned a lot from his experience.

"I really think that a lot of what I’ve done over the last couple of years has been communicating, teaching and explaining to people around the country what we’re doing," he said.

"The church at the general and conference levels in a lot of ways reflects the church at the local level. I had to learn to communicate with thousands of personalities. Hopefully I’ve become a better communicator and understand people better."

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

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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