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United Methodists begin response to Hurricane Katrina

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Courtesy of Disaster News Network

A satellite image shows Hurricane Katrina as it makes landfall near New Orleans on August 29.
Aug. 29, 2005

A UMNS Report
By Ciona Rouse*

United Methodist churches around the Gulf Coast are responding to the needs in their communities in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, after the Category 4 storm made landfall in Louisiana Aug. 29.

Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast twice Monday morning as a Category 4 storm with winds as high as 140 mph, landing in Louisiana.

United Methodist churches in and around the New Orleans area were shut down over the Aug. 27-28 weekend as residents of the city participated in an unprecedented mandatory evacuation. Eighty percent of the population fled in advance of the storm, according to news reports.

Louisiana’s United Methodist conference center, known as the Wesley Center, was housing nearly 200 guests. Sixty of the evacuees were residents of a New Orleans nursing care facility for mentally challenged people.

“I am so proud of our staff. As always they are working hard to meet the physical and spiritual needs of these people who have been displaced from their homes,” said the Rev. Richard Bushnell, director of the Wesley Center.

In addition to offering shelter and food, staff members were counseling guests.

“Many of them came to us not knowing whether they would have a home to go back to,” Bushnell said.

The storm carried winds of up to 140 miles per hour when it hit Louisiana, striking the coast not once but twice on the morning of Aug. 29. At least half a million people along the coast were left without power, according to news reports. The Superdome, which was sheltering thousands of residents, was struck and its roof damaged.

Trinity United Methodist Church in Ruston, La., was serving as an overflow shelter for the American Red Cross. Program staff, pastors, church members and community volunteers were feeding and housing more than 150 evacuees in the church gymnasium.

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Photo courtesy of Marvin Nauman/FEMA

Joann and Orland Douglas point to where a tree fell on their home after winds from Hurricane Katrina.
“We expect to have upwards of 250 people before this is over,” said Terri Russell, administrative assistant to the Rev. Fred Wideman, church pastor. Wideman was en route to an area Presbyterian camp that was lending mattresses to Trinity for the evacuees.

Church members turned out in force with food, bottled water, air mattresses and donations.

Katrina continued its push northward through Mississippi.

The hurricane struck Florida’s southeastern coast Aug. 25 as a Category 1 storm, killing nine people. United Methodists in the state were assessing the damages and addressing the needs of churches and people in the cities affected.

“We need volunteer teams. We need money to carry out relief and to rebuild areas. And we need prayers,” said Marilyn Swanson, director of the risk management office for the Florida Annual (regional) Conference.

Katrina was the sixth hurricane to hit the conference in the past year, following Charley, Frances, Ivan, Jeanne and Dennis. People in the area were experiencing "high anxiety and depression" and wondering when the storm damage was going to stop, Swanson said.

The Florida Conference’s storm recovery center was getting the most phone calls from the Miami/Dade area, where reports have been received of damage to churches and parsonages, according to Swanson. Many of the areas hit by Katrina were still recovering from Hurricane Frances.

The conference is building care teams and setting up training on how to care for people during disaster. The conference also hosts a retreat for clergy and people working with disaster relief following such a crisis. The Shade and Freshwater retreat provides time away from the disaster area for clergy and their families with counseling upon request, said Swanson.

The Alabama-West Florida Conference also had plans under way for responding to Hurricane Katrina. The conference center in Andalusia, Ala., and the disaster response center in Mobile were closed Aug. 29 because of the weather.

“We’ve, unfortunately, gotten used to a lot of hurricanes lately,” said Meredyth Earnest, conference communicator.

The conference was preparing to send disaster response teams into Mississippi and Louisiana to address the damage expected in those states. United Methodist leaders in those conferences were staying in touch and sharing information about possible needs.

The Alabama-West Florida disaster response center was established last year, when Hurricane Ivan struck.

“I think we’re as prepared as we can be,” Earnest said. “Everyone has a system in place for communication.”

The Mississippi Conference was preparing to respond to local damage as well as needs in neighboring conferences. “Most of what we have to do right now is hurry up and wait,” said the Rev. Jeff Pruett, disaster response coordinator.

“I’m very pleased with the way our churches respond to mission service to help in other areas,” he said.

The conference’s response plan includes hiring a full-time staff person to coordinate relief efforts, dispatching disaster relief trailers to areas of need, collecting money from local congregations, opening church buildings for shelter, and placing volunteer information on its Web site,, after initial assessments of the damages are made.

The Mississippi Conference had already assembled flood buckets filled with cleaning supplies to help people recover. Last year, the conference provided about 2,000 buckets to Florida and Alabama following the slew of hurricanes that struck those states, Pruett said.

The United Methodist Committee on Relief, which provides emergency relief to many areas of the world, has systems in place for responding to Hurricane Katrina.

“UMCOR is making the necessary preparations to respond immediately to this powerful hurricane,” said Tom Hazelwood, disaster response executive of the United Methodist Committee on Relief.

To learn how to make flood buckets, a project of UMCOR, visit

To volunteer or to donate online to UMCOR’s relief efforts, visit

Besides the Web site, donations to UMCOR’s relief efforts can be made through local churches or sent directly to UMCOR, 475 Riverside Drive, Room 330, New York, NY 10015. Designate checks to UMCOR for Advance No. 982523 and “Hurricanes 2005 Global.” Credit-card donations may be made by calling (800) 554-8583.

*Rouse is a freelance writer in Nashville, Tenn. Betty Backstrom, Louisiana Conference communicator, contributed to this report.

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


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