Faith-based organizations caring for survivors

As government officials scrambled to gain control over a chaotic situation in New Orleans Friday, voluntary agencies were trying to care for refugees.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | September 2, 2005

"The health care situation has dramatically worsened."

—Dr. Steve Phillips

As government officials scrambled to gain control over a chaotic situation in New Orleans Friday, voluntary agencies were trying to care for refugees streaming out of hurricane-stricken areas.

Public shelters, churches and individual homes throughout Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Texas, Arkansas and many other states were opening their doors to hurricane survivors who need food, water and medicine.

About 23,000 people who had taken refuge at the Superdome in New Orleans since Aug. 28 attempted to move Sept. 1 to the Houston Astrodome.

"The Red Cross does not have the capacity" to provide food for people in the Astrodome this month, and "it has asked faith communities for help," said Heather L. Feltman, director of Lutheran Disaster Response (LDR).

Faith-based disaster response organizations of many denominations are teaming up to help the Astrodome refugees, many offering to provide food for one week - a $1 million per week effort.

The Houston Astrodome was the most widely publicized public shelter, but the sheltering effort continued within a web of smaller-scale efforts as well.

Churches of every denomination were collecting relief items and assembling relief kits for survivors. Churches were also opening youth centers, schools, fellowship halls, and other facilities.

But on Friday, the problem was how to refer hurricane survivors to the shelters that are opening.

"We don't have any details about who to refer or how to refer," said a state-level emergency management official in Texas. "Also, so many things are being sent to Houston that I'm trying to divert some donations to other locations in the state."

"We just need to know where some of these items are needed," added one faith-based responder.

The state of Texas reported it was having a difficult time sending out the message that, at this time, cash donations were the best way to help. "We have taken a large amount of calls from in state and out-of-state from people trying to volunteer and people trying to donate things," said a state emergency management official. "And they want to send them to Louisiana and the Astrodome. They don't want to send cash. They want to send stuff. I'm having a hard time discouraging people from doing donation drives."

At least 5,000 evacuees were coming into the Austin area alone.

While state and federal officials come to terms with how to match up hurricane survivors with waiting shelters, voluntary agencies were ready to provide immediate care. "We're setting up two facilities, a 100,000-square foot one and a 400,000-square-foot one," said Don Jones, disaster volunteer coordinator for the Southwest Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church.

In Texas, LDR was compiling lists of all people who want to volunteer, said Dan Zieschang, who represents both LDR and Lutheran Social Services in that state. "We are traditionally part of long-term recovery, but, like everyone else, we are being thrown at the immediate response right now. A lot of churches are being turned into shelters. So we are getting a lot of questions from pastors."

The Salvation Army was preparing canteens that will try to offer meal services to shelters of all kinds. Adventist Community Services is opening warehouses in Louisiana and Mississippi to store and sort material donations.

In tandem with Christian denominations, the United Jewish Communities was launching a massive fundraising and relief effort as well.

Meanwhile the situation in New Orleans continued to pose a grave threat to survivors there. Thousands of National Guard arrived on the scene to bring relief supplies and to suppress looting and violence that has wracked the city.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin has scathingly criticized the federal government for what he believes is a slow relief effort that left people to die in the city.

Health concerns there are still growing, reported one physician responding at the scene. "Bodies are still being recovered floating in the floods. The health care situation has dramatically worsened," said Dr. Steve Phillips, who said the elderly and small children were bearing the brunt of the difficult conditions.

He and a team of seven other doctors took medicines from a Walgreen's store on Canal Street. "We basically scooped the entire drug sets into garbage bags and removed them. All under police escort. The looters had to be held back at gunpoint."

Working amid looters and chaos, Dr. Phillips still wanted to send a message that, despite television reports spread across the country, the people left in New Orleans are not malicious people. "Most of it is not malicious looting. These are poor and desperate people with no housing and no medical care and no food or water trying to take care of themselves and their families. Unfortunately, the people are armed and dangerous."

His greatest fear, he said, was sheer uncertainty. "I don't know how long it will be and this is my greatest fear. The greatest pain is to think about the loss. And how long the rebuild will take. And the horror of so many dead people."

Adding to the city's vast woes, a huge oil spill was spotted near two storage tanks on the Mississippi River downstream from New Orleans, state officials said Friday. Two tanks with the capacity of holding 2 million barrels appeared to be leaking.

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