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Bishops urge safety as Gulf Coast churches brace for Rita


Bishops urge safety as Gulf Coast churches brace for Rita

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Courtesy of NOAA

Satellite imagery shows the path of Hurricane Rita.
Sept. 22, 2005       

A UMNS Report
By Linda Green*

“Heed the warnings.”

Three United Methodist bishops and the denomination’s director of disaster response are sending that message to people in the projected path of Hurricane Rita, the monstrous storm expected to make landfall on the Texas coast Sept. 24.

“We encourage people to evacuate areas where they have been asked to evacuate,” the leaders said. “Please do that early.”

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Bishop Hope Morgan Ward

The message came from Bishop William Hutchinson of the Louisiana Area, Bishop Hope Morgan Ward, Mississippi Area, and Bishop Larry Goodpaster, Alabama-West Florida Area. The trio met Sept. 21 in Jackson, Miss., with the Rev. Tom Hazelwood, executive director of U.S. disaster response for the United Methodist Committee on Relief.

The destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall Aug. 29, and the problems surrounding the government’s recovery effort compelled the bishops and Hazelwood to urge people in Houston, Galveston, Texas, and along the coast of Mississippi and Louisiana to get out of harm’s way.

“People need to head the warnings to evacuate,” Hazelwood said.

Or, as the Rev. Clay Whitaker, chairman of disaster response for the Texas Annual Conference, put it: “Evacuate. Get Out.”

In the past three days, officials in the Texas Annual Conference have encouraged pastors and laity to evacuate as the situation has unfolded and to care for their families and take safety.

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Bishop Janice K. Riggle Huie

Bishop Janice R. Huie said most of the coastal area of the annual conference is in the mandatory evacuation zone. “To the best of my knowledge, all pastors and church members have evacuated,” she said.

“There is a high level of compliance with the evacuation orders, for which I am grateful,” she added. 

“We ask for prayers during the next few days,” Huie said. “Wherever Hurricane Rita makes landfall, those of us who are United Methodists will work to bring relief and reconstruction to the areas.”

Whitaker said disaster response organizations in Texas are “preparing to let the storm do its thing and then begin to pick up the pieces.” Those organizations will begin a daily conference call on Sept. 26 to organize their work.

As a sign of how serious denomination officials are taking the Hurricane Rita warnings, UMCOR closed its Sager Brown Depot in Baldwin, La., Sept. 22.

The Rev. R. Randy Day, top executive of UMCOR’s parent agency, the Board of Global Ministries, said the agency’s directors and staff “are with the people of East Texas, Louisiana, and other areas endangered by the approaching Hurricane Rita. … Let us all learn to be good neighbors to all who are frightened and in need.”

Hurricane Rita, with its 175-mile-per-hour winds, has been classified as a Category 5 storm—the most severe rating for a hurricane. Weather forecasters predict the storm to make landfall on the central Texas Gulf Coast between Galveston and Corpus Christi. They also say that a turn could hurt the already devastated city of New Orleans.

Having seen what Hurricane Katrina did three weeks earlier, people were not taking chances. Thousands of people in Louisiana and Texas were fleeing Sept. 21 and Sept. 22 by car, bus and plane, turning major highways into parking lots.  Churches in Houston and Galveston that were sheltering Hurricane Katrina evacuees were moving those survivors to higher ground in the face of Rita.

“We offer our prayers and support to those in the path of Hurricane Rita,” the bishops said. “The storm could impact an area that has been generous in helping us following Hurricane Katrina. We have been the recipients of a lot of support and resources from across the general church, and we know that will continue for the people in Houston.”

While continuing to feed families displaced by Katrina, Memorial Drive United Methodist Church in Houston was preparing for Rita, said the Rev. Cynthia Harvey, pastor.

“We do have contingency plans in place should Rita come near Houston,” Harvey said, in e-mail messages to church members and friends.  In the meantime, we ask you to prepare you and your family. Check in on your neighbors, especially the elderly and disabled, the single people and those with no family in the area. 

“There has never been a more important time to be the body of Christ than now,” she wrote.
Louisiana gets ready again

The Rev. Doug Ezell, Lake Charles (La.) District superintendent, said, “We have advised area United Methodist churches to be ready to use their vans and buses to take the elderly out of harm’s way.”  

“We encourage our church members, who are already exhausted and stressed from caring for evacuees for several weeks, to take care while driving if evacuation is necessary,” he said.

Much of the Lake Charles District is under a mandatory evacuation due to the threat of Hurricane Rita, while a significant portion of the Acadiana District is under voluntary evacuation.

Meanwhile, Sager Brown announced it was closing. “We will not be receiving or sending any truckloads into the depot until after Hurricane Rita has passed. We hope to have our disaster recovery materials available as soon as possible,” said Gwen Redding, director of UMCOR Sager Brown.

The Louisiana Conference office, in an e-mail, requested that all Lake Charles and Acadiana District clergy contact their district office after Hurricane Rita passes to let the office know their location and contact information.

“We have learned from Katrina that cell phones are not always the most reliable means of communication. Please give us a landline phone number if at all possible as well as e-mail and cell phone information,” the conference stated.

Texas battens down

With Rita projected to hit over the Sept. 24-25 weekend, Harvey said the Memorial church office would be closed Sept. 22 and 23 for “battening down” but that the church would serve lunch for evacuees Sept. 22.
“Our main concern is for you and your family,” Harvey said in her e-mail. “Over the last three weeks, we have learned a great deal from our Katrina families. The greatest insight we have gleaned is the importance of community and of family. Many of these families (biological and self-formed) made it through the storm because they stuck together. So, stick together,” she said.

Bishop Joel Martinez of San Antonio Area has been in contact with pastors and congregations in “probable” districts that could be affected by Rita. He said Victoria and Corpus Christi districts may be hardest hit, and people have been urged to evacuate.

The bishop expects 75 to 100 pastors to leave those areas. More than 50 pastors have taken shelter in Austin, he said.

Numerous churches and institutions that have been assisting Katrina victims, are ready to respond and receive people affected by Rita, he said. The conference is already housing 100 workers with the Federal Emergency Management Agency at Mt. Wesley Retreat Center, and Katrina evacuees are there too.

Travis Park United Methodist Church, San Antonio, is preparing for Hurricane Rita evacuees, according to Rolando Morales, operations manager for social justice programs at the church. Already a major relief center for Hurricane Katrina evacuees, the church, with assistance from FEMA, is a center for ID recovery.

“We expect to fill the same niche with Rita evacuees,” Morales said.

Advice for response

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Bishop William Hutchinson

Through the Southwest Texas Conference’s Office of Disaster Response, a checklist of actions before hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and other disasters threaten was sent to church leaders and members. “Ground all actions in prayer for strength, calm and focus,” the disaster preparation checklist said. “We don’t need panic. God will provide.”  

Bishops Hutchinson, Ward and Goodpaster offered advice based on their experience with evacuations. “We also ask churches to set up contact points so that pastors and their congregations may check in with information about their personal safety and whereabouts if they have been displaced,” they said.

UMCOR urged people to prepare for Hurricane Rita by having on hand a three-day supply of food and water, and extra batteries, said Linda Beher, communications director for the relief agency.

Congregations, she said, should plan to contact the most vulnerable — the elderly and sick — in the congregation and have a list to touch base. 

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The Rev. Tom Hazelwood

UMCOR officials said the agency would be ready to respond to Rita as soon as the storm hit. The Mississippi and Louisiana conferences are at a point in organizing their relief that UMCOR staff can shift to Texas as needed, Hazelwood said. “Things are doing OK here, and much of the nurture that we have been providing will continue but will not require someone on the ground.”

The relief agency will release information though e-mail and over its hotline, Beher said.

In a Sept. 22 statement, UMCOR noted that disasters of this scope “will require years of recovery and investment.”

“Cash is the best gift right now,” said the Rev. Kristin L. Sachen, head of UMCOR’s Emergency Services Office. “UMCOR does not accept clothing or food because they take up valuable space that is needed for critical emergency supplies.” A list of most-needed supplies is available online at

Donations to support the United Methodist response to Hurricane Katrina 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, or the “Hurricane Rita appeal,” UMCOR Advance No. 901323, and left in church offering plates or mailed directly to UMCOR, P.O. Box 9068, New York, NY 10087-9068.

Nashville, Tenn. United Methodist communicators Betty Backstrom of Louisiana and Woody Woodrick of Mississippi contributed to this report.

News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or

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