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Poverty worsens storm's impact

Sharon Smith sees a long, difficult road ahead for the residents of Moss Point.

BY HEATHER MOYER | MOSS POINT, Miss. | October 4, 2005

"We have a pediatric nurse practitioner with us, too, so anyone with children is also welcome to come in."

—Valerie Tennessen

Sharon Smith sees a long, difficult road ahead for the residents of Moss Point.

A member of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Smith says most of the Gulf Coast town's residents lived in poverty before Hurricane Katrina hit. The situation for them now is bleak.

"Of our 50 church members, we have seven who are now homeless and 15 who suffered severe damage to their homes," she said. "What we had in this town was a large percentage of working poor. Most were living paycheck to paycheck. Everybody lost their cars if they stayed during the hurricane - which most did. Most did not have insurance, and now many are homeless, carless, and will end up jobless."

Smith said the residents of Moss Point were on their own for the first few days after the hurricane, with only the local churches trying to meet their needs. Fortunately help started coming in from both her church's national denomination and other churches nationwide.

Normal days at First Christian Church (FCC) now include a health clinic in the sanctuary and volunteers unloading and sorting hurricane relief supplies in what used to be Sunday School classrooms. Residents regularly stop in for vaccinations and food. Others just stop in to talk.

Smith is now the site coordinator for all the FCC relief and said everyone there is grateful for the help. "It's been wonderful. If it was not for the churches across the country caring for us, we would be in dire straits."

Fellow Disciples of Christ churches in the Gulf Coast area are serving the Moss Point church as well. South Baldwin Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Foley, Ala., is helping organize incoming volunteers. For now, volunteers stay at the Foley church and drive in to help at Moss Point, but Smith said her church will soon be ready - with the help of the national denomination - to house volunteers itself.

FCC's national denomination also helped set up the health clinic in the sanctuary, which is staffed by volunteers from the Northwest Medical Team out of Portland, Oregon. Valerie Tennessen is a volunteer nurse with the organization and is at the church for a two-week term.

"We're seeing any minor clinic emergencies that come in," she explained. "We're also giving tetanus shots and doing some limited prescription filling if residents have their prescriptions. We have a pediatric nurse practitioner with us, too, so anyone with children is also welcome to come in."

Beyond that, Tennessen said another part of her job is just listening. Residents are grateful to have somewhere to turn for help, and many just want to talk. "I think in some cases all we can do is be a shoulder," she noted.

Tennessen said she and Smith also frequently drive through the neighborhoods to check on residents who are unable to leave their homes.

"Many elderly people are stuck living in homes with mold and it's taken a while for their families to come in and get them out," said Smith. "So we've been checking on them."

In the past, Smith explained, hurricanes that affected the community did not do a great deal of damage. The residents were able to fix and secure everything within four to five months. Hurricane Katrina was completely different, though. "This is not the typical situation" she said. "That's not how it will be this time."

Sitting on a pew in the sanctuary, Smith was interrupted by a volunteer. "We need your help out back," said the volunteer.

Walking back through rooms full of food, baby products, and more, Smith made it outside and saw volunteers unloading a truck full of flood buckets shipped from the Church World Service and Church of the Brethren Emergency Response Warehouse in New Windsor, Maryland.

"This is amazing, we never know where the help is going to come from next," she said, adding that the 500 flood buckets would be gone within days.

As the volunteers formed a bucket brigade and loaded up a nearby pallet, Smith praised the national church organizations for helping out small churches like hers.

"We didn't know how blessed we were to be a part of a national denomination," she said.

"They're taking care of us and providing financial assistance - and we couldn't ask for much better than that."

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