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Faith-based response gears up

Faith-based disaster response groups vowed to help those most in need.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | August 29, 2005

"You think of New Orleans or Gulfport - and they will have severe damage - but also there are many people in rural areas that will need help."

—Tom Hazelwood

As Hurricane Katrina churned through Louisiana and Mississippi on Monday, faith-based disaster response groups vowed to help those most in need.

Katrina, after making landfall with 145-mph winds near the bayou town of Buras, then passed just to the east of New Orleans as it moved inland. The storm made landfall only 15 miles from where the National Hurricane Center predicted it would hit.

In coastal Louisiana and Mississippi, communities were submerged by floodwater up to the roof lines. An estimated 40,000 homes were flooded in St. Bernard Parish alone, said one state official, and most homes on the south shore of Lake Ponchartrain were nearly completely underwater.

Katrina brought a 15-foot storm surge to New Orleans, and a 20-foot storm surge to Mississippi, said forecasters. Emergency officials were not able to access many of the hardest-hit areas.

The storm weakened to a Category 1 hurricane by Monday afternoon but was still packing gusting winds and torrential rain.

In a large disaster that's still unfolding as the storm churns on, faith-based response groups will reach out to the most vulnerable people first, explained Bill Adams, director of disaster response services for the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC), which was planning to deploy cleanup teams to the hardest-hit areas. "If you think about the impacted area, there are lots of poor communities."

CRWRC's cleanup teams will go there first, he said, and that same philosophy will apply as faith-based groups move through what looks to be a long recovery. "We're gearing up. Then it will be the same criteria going forward through needs assessment and then reconstruction."

CRWRC is one of many faith-based groups planning to respond and, working ecumenically, responders said they will be on the lookout for the communities most in need. That sometimes means looking beyond what's featured on television headline news, said Adams and others. "I can't tell you at this point who they are or where they are," he said.

In general terms, people who don't have many resources to begin with often have trouble recovering from a disaster, said Tom Hazelwood, executive secretary for U.S. disaster response for the United Methodist Committee on Relief. "I think of those that have not had much disaster experience, the people that don't have many resources anyway, whether it's because of a language barrier or their economic status to start with."

Members of the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (NVOAD) have been contacting local church congregations in the most affected areas, said Adams, who serves on the NVOAD board along with Hazelwood. "That's where you start to identify those vulnerable pockets."

Urban areas tend to get more media attention and their needs are more visible, said Hazelwood. "You think of New Orleans or Gulfport - and they will have severe damage - but also there are many people in rural areas that will need help. We'll be trying to find those small pockets in those small communities."

In addition to a physical recovery, people will have emotional trauma. From highly-publicized frightening footage of the Superdome roof being peeled away as 9,000 people huddled inside, to less visible families in rural communities who may have waited the storm out in their homes, the emotional impact is very real, said responders.

"These hurricanes do untold psychological damage to us all," said Hazelwood. "We'll be offering counseling and we'll be offering tips to the local churches and the local communities on how they can cope with the aftermath of these storms."

Faith-based groups are in a unique position to offer spiritual care, Hazelwood and Adams agreed.

"It's the base of who we are," explained Hazelwood. "The spiritual care is a part of everything we do."

As Katrina made landfall, spiritual care has also taken place at a neighbor-to-neighbor level. Sarah Schoeffler sheltered family and friends at her house in Lafayette, Louisiana. "They're all out of New Orleans. They're already saying they might not have utilities up and running for a month yet."

Schoeffler, who went through Hurricane Lili a few years ago, said she has watched disasters bring out compassion in people. "Sometimes, storms like this, hurricanes like this, bring out the best in people."

During a highly-publicized disaster that has dominated national headlines, people are especially eager to help. But responders across the board urged people not to travel to Louisiana and Mississippi until they affiliate themselves with a responding group, and until disaster-stricken communities are ready to receive volunteers.

"Don't go into disaster areas until it's safe and until they're ready to receive the volunteers," said Hazelwood. "Our phones are already ringing with people wanting to know if they can go tomorrow."

A cash donation to a responding group is best right now, agreed responders. For those who want to do something hands-on, several faith-based response groups offer instructions for purchasing and assembling cleanup kits, health kits and other relief packages.

And don't forget to pray, added Hazelwood. "Pray for the people affected. Pray for the workers who are going to be there in the midst of all this."

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