'Normal' responsegrinds to halt

Hurricane Katrina has obliterated so many homes, churches, communications systems, and fuel supply lines that the normal channels of disaster response have simply ground to a halt.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | September 1, 2005

"This catastrophe may well be the worst disaster of its kind this nation has ever faced."

—Johnny Wray

Hurricane Katrina has obliterated so many homes, churches, communications systems, and fuel supply lines that the normal channels of disaster response have simply ground to a halt.

With gas supplies faltering, communication disrupted, and an unprecedented number of homeless people in the U.S., government and faith-based responders alike are being forced to rethink plans they’ve used in other disasters.

The first of 500 busloads of people evacuated from the Louisiana Superdome arrived early Thursday at their new temporary home — the Houston Astrodome, 350 miles away. The Superdome has sheltered about 30,000 people since the storm hit. Officials were estimating on Thursday morning that up to 60,000 people were still seeking evacuation from New Orleans, and crowds of people were converging on evacuation points.

The governors of Louisiana and Mississippi have ordered mobilization of an additional 10,000 National Guard troops to provide security and help with relief.

Religious officials in Houston met with government officials this morning, and one faith leader said the religious community there would need to raise $8 million to feed the people in the Astrodome for the next month.

In addition to busloads from the Superdome, other refugees have been making their way to the Astrodome as well, said one denominational leader. "They're coming from everywhere. There are school buses that have come - and that's before the caravan from the Superdome started arriving. This has continued all night long."

The evacuation was suspended when shots were fired at a military helicopter. Then the military suspended the ground evacuation because trash fires set outside the arena were blocking buses from getting close enough to pick people up.

Meanwhile, in Mississippi, responders were trying to fan out to view damage and assess needs but many were doubtful about how far they could get. "There doesn't appear to be any gas here," said a faith-based responder.

Gas stations far afield from the disaster sites were closing on Wednesday evening and Thursday morning. Residents in Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Michigan and other states rushed to fill their tanks.

"I don't know when I’ll get gas again," said a station owner in Laurel, Md. "This hasn't happened to me since the 1970s."

The search-and-rescue phase of this large-scale disaster has been uncommonly long, agreed responders. As they take care of immediate physical needs, many wondered how and when the emotional needs of survivors would be met. Many faith-based and voluntary agencies have experience offering spiritual care services, care ministry teams, and counseling to disaster survivors.

For now, the focus remained on simply keeping people alive. At least 185 people are dead in Mississippi, and Louisiana officials estimated that hundreds and perhaps thousands of people have perished in that state.

The full magnitude of Katrina’s aftermath is still unclear. Some areas in coastal Mississippi and Louisiana are still unreachable. While TV news coverage focused on New Orleans, scores of other communities in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi were simply cut off amid vast destruction.

In Slidell, Louisiana, officials estimated that 90 percent of the city's residences were destroyed or damaged and that half of the city’s 30,000 residents are homeless.

In Mississippi, rescuers are still hoping to save people trapped in flooded and crumbled buildings.

"This catastrophe may well be the worst disaster of its kind this nation has ever faced," said Johnny Wray, executive director of Week of Compassion (WOC), the relief and development fund of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

"And I do not say that casually or without regard to other major disasters in our nation's history. Normally, the relief operation would be well underway; instead, we are still in a search and rescue mode. The normal network of local churches and partners through whom WOC usually works has been seriously disrupted. Phone lines and cell towers are down. Basic infrastructure systems (roads, bridges, utility lines) have been heavily damaged - which means it is extremely difficult to get in touch with our pastors and congregations in the impacted areas."

Wray and others urged people who want to volunteer to wait until they're needed. "There will be a time when volunteer work groups are needed," he said. "But that time has not come."

Several faith-based groups were building registries of volunteers to deploy when the disaster-stricken areas are ready for them.

Meanwhile, churches and families across the nation are opening buildings and homes to hurricane survivors. But many hurricane survivors can’t connect with the people who want to help them. Most don't have Internet access, and cell phone coverage is very limited.

Electricity was out for more than 2.3 million people in Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama and Florida.

President Bush announced he has created a Cabinet-level task force to coordinate hurricane relief efforts across federal agencies, headed by Homeland Security Director Michael Chertoff.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency will be in charge of the federal response on the ground in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

The White House also announced Wednesday that Bush has asked his father, former President George H.W. Bush, and former President Bill Clinton to spearhead an international relief effort for hurricane survivors, as they did for victims of last year's tsunami in South Asia.

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