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Disaster coordinators brace for new hurricane season

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Ed Blakeslee

June 2, 2006

A UMNS Report
By Kathy L. Gilbert*

Three men in particular are standing on the shorelines of the Gulf Coast praying for mostly sunshine and blue skies from June to November.

“I haven’t been looking at how many days until hurricane season starts; I am looking at how many days until it is over,” says the Rev. Darryl Tate, executive director of the United Methodist Louisiana Annual (regional) Conference’s Storm Recovery Center.

Tate along with the Rev. Clyde Pressley, Alabama-West Florida, and Ed Blakeslee, Mississippi, lived through the one of the worst hurricane seasons to hit the United States last summer as disaster response coordinators.

In the Louisiana Annual Conference, 90 United Methodist churches were damaged and 80 pastors were displaced. In the Mississippi Conference, 48 churches were damaged and six churches were destroyed beyond repair. Coden (Ala.) United Methodist Church was destroyed and Bayou La Batre sustained considerable damage in the Alabama-Florida Conference, where three other churches also sustained damage.

While coordinating his conference’s response, Tate also dealt with the challenges of being a displaced pastor. His church, St. Luke’s United Methodist, and parsonage were flooded in New Orleans.

Pressley became Alabama-West Florida’s coordinator after Hurricane Ivan in 2004. He says people still need help rebuilding from that storm. Hurricanes Dennis and Katrina just set them back even further.

“We just go back to the drawing board,” he says.

Blakeslee, a member of Trinity United Methodist Church and retiree from the Mississippi Power Co., has lived in Gulfport, Miss., all his life. He has seen a lot of hurricanes come through his state. He counts them off: Betsy, Camille, Fredric, Elena, Georges.

“The sad part is I never had the vision this would happen,” he says of Katrina’s damage. “A lot of what I remember and love about this area is gone forever.”

Hard lessons

All three men have learned hard lessons and are preparing churches and pastors for the next storm.

Pressley has met with four of the eight district superintendents in his area to talk about preparing for a hurricane or other disaster.

“We talk to them about how to organize the church, how to respond immediately ? how to communicate, how to take care of the homebound folks and how to safeguard their church records,” he says. “We don’t have a lot of optimism that everyone went back home and did what we said. That is what concerns us.”

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A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose

The Revs. Darryl Tate (left) and Marva Mitchell visit outside the Uptown Station of the Louisiana United Methodist Storm Recovery Center in New Orleans.

During annual conference meetings, which begin June 4 in both Alabama-West Florida and Louisiana, Tate and Pressley will be making presentations on what happened last year and how to prepare for this year.

“On Monday night (June 5), we are going to have a Katrina-Rita party,” Tate says. “It will be a chance to let our hair down and just have a relaxing evening. Then on Tuesday afternoon, we share our plans and talk about the mission zone that has been declared in New Orleans.” The plan designates seven mission zones in the city that will be directed by a clergy team. Thirty-eight churches are in the zones.

Disaster relief workers will also be honored during the conference, Tate says.

Pressley will make a presentation June 5 that will include suggestions about what individual churches can do. “By that time, we will already be four days into the new hurricane season.”

Blakeslee will meet with pastors and district superintendents in the next few days to talk about plans in case another storm hits.

“Nobody in this country was prepared for a storm of this magnitude,” Blakeslee says of Katrina. “Based on what we learned, there are a lot of things we would do differently and faster.”

One of the things weighing heavily on his mind is the coming hot weather. “It is already 92 degrees, and a lot of people are in those small FEMA trailers.”

Warehouses and modular buildings have been built in Mississippi to help with some of the problems encountered last year, when storage space and lodging for volunteers ran short.

“I think by the end of the summer we will have everything up and going,” Blakeslee says. Churches have been straining to house volunteers and still maintain their ministry. Construction of some dorms will take pressure off those churches, he says.

In Louisiana, Tate says every pastor will be asked to register at annual conference and supply emergency contact names and numbers. He wants to pair each district in the state up with another so congregation members will know who to call with their locations.

Last year, congregations were spread out across the country, and locating people was hard. “People evacuated to St. Paul, Minn., or St. Louis or Nashville will know who to call and say, ?This is my address and this was my church.’”

A database will then be developed after annual conference ends. Tate also wants to get copies of Louisiana’s evacuation plan so each delegate leaving the meeting will have one to share with others.

“We’ve been told by the authorities that if you live in a trailer, even in a thunderstorm, they want you out,” Tate says. “Down in New Orleans, they were saying if a tropical storm warning is issued, there will be a mandatory evacuation. I think that has been revised to a Category 2 or above hurricane.”

Pressley is hoping for a chance to recover and plan ahead. “If we get a reprieve this year, we can get ahead on these recovery efforts, and our next plan of action is to be more proactive and aggressive.”

?Never thought I would be here’

All three men also say they never expected to be in the roles they now occupy. Tate has gone from pastor of a church to disaster relief coordinator to director and now to executive director.

“In this ministry, pretty much every day you see something that lets you know you are making a difference in humanity,” he says. “I haven’t had this much reward in ministry, really being able to touch the surface of humanity, for a long time.”

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A UMNS photo by Meredyth Earnest

Having learned lessons from Hurricane Katrina, the Rev. Clyde Pressley is preparing his churches and pastors for another hurricane season.

Pressley spent 26 years as an Air Force chaplain and then retired and was an associate pastor at Daphne (Ala.) United Methodist Church for 10 years.

“Then I decided I’d go play golf for awhile,” he says, chuckling. “Come September, the storm (Ivan) came through and the bishop called me.” He said yes to what he thought would be a temporary assignment.

“Long story short, I’m still here and thoroughly enjoying it. You know, it is a joy to see the church come alive and be the church and be the body of Christ when the world needs you the most.”

Blakeslee directed work crews out his church for two months before getting the call from his bishop asking him to take over as conference coordinator.

“It makes you feel good about what the church has done,” he says. “There are a lot of things we could have done better, but then nobody was ready. When you compare the church to other organizations, you really have to feel good about the effort and the results.”

Outpouring of help

The generosity of people from around the country has impressed — and touched — the three men.

“I could not have done this ministry for 10 months without the generosity of the people of St. Luke’s,” Tate says. “They gave us insurance money from the parsonage so we could start over again, and they even gave us money to take a vacation this summer.”

Blakeslee says he has met wonderful people from everywhere.

“I was just over at Bay St. Louis today and I met a man from Oregon, some young people from Tennessee and North Carolina, people from Arizona. I have just met some outstanding people.”

“You know, when you think about it, people from Michigan weren’t hit by Hurricane Katrina; why would they take their time and energy and means to drive all the way down here except that they care about people,” Pressley says.

Tate is excited about all that has been accomplished.

“We have volunteers galore, we have wonderful case management going on, we have construction people in place and a plan for the future.

“People who are the least, the last and the lost are going to have their needs met through the ministry of the Louisiana Annual Conference, through the generous donations to the United Methodist Committee on Relief.”

Blakeslee sums it up: “All these wonderful people have stepped forward to help, and I just hope they keep coming.”

*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

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

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