Faith organizations ready response

As winds, rain subsides, disaster response groups begin assessments, plan response to devastating Gustav

BY PJ HELLER | HOUMA, LA | September 1, 2008

Mike McEuen, Broadmoor UMC's disaster relief coordinator, helps provide care for first disasters response workers.

Making preparations for Hurricane Gustav, many disaster response organizations that are still providing relief to Hurricane Katrina survivors, closed their centers last week and prepositioned supplies to help respond to Gustav once the storm passed through. Other local organizations made final plans to respond in advance of the storm.

"The disaster response staff in New Orleans and Port Arthur,TX (moved) our physical assets such as vehicles and tools, to higher ground," noted Katherine Kerr of Lutheran Social Services of the South in Austin, Texas. "We've identified churches that can be staging areas for whatever the appropriate response is."

The third anniversary of Katrina inundating New Orleans was Thursday and the fact that another storm may soon be bearing on the region isn't lost on residents of the city.

"There are a lot of mixed emotions due to the fact that it's so close to the Katrina date," said Jessica Vermilyea, the Louisiana disaster response coordinator for Lutheran Disaster Response. "It has people very concerned. It's that time of the year when people are emotional over the anniversary date."

Federal, state and local agencies insist they are ready and better prepared to handle a major storm than they were three years ago. Faith-based organizations also report they are gearing up and will be ready to respond if needed.

"We really feel that we're very ready," said Kevin Massey, director of Lutheran Disaster Response. "We're taking steps here at ELCA headquarters to manage information and receive calls regarding donations and volunteering. We'll do regular check-ins with all our local coordinators as time goes.

As for Katrina volunteers working in the area, Massey noted that the last week in August and first week in September were typically the slowest times for interfaiths to bring in out-of-state volunteers. He said LDR did not have any out-of-state volunteers in the area and none were scheduled until later in September.

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance said it "has taken steps to evacuate the Presbyterian Volunteer Villages in Louisiana and Mississippi" and that it "stands ready to respond to Hurricane Gustav."

Fred Visser, a disaster response services regional manager with CRWRC, said the organization was keeping a close eye on the storm.

"We will monitor any conference calls and we'll be ready to go," said Visser, who is responsible for Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas. "Right now we're just monitoring it."

Both Kerr and Vermilyea said lessons learned from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita were being put to good use in preparation for Gustav.

"We're taking it pretty seriously," Kerr said. "We learned a few things with Katrina."

"I think we're much better prepared than we were three years ago . . . we're about as prepared as we can be," Vermilyea added.

"People are in communication that weren’t in communication before," she noted. "There are long-term recovery organizations now in place within the parishes that are up and operational. There are networks of nonprofits, faith-based organizations, that now have connections and communication lines that weren’t there when we had Katrina.

A similar sentiment was echoed by officials from Church World Service.

"Since Hurricane Katrina, CWS has worked extensively along the U.S. Gulf Coast, building capacity among long-term recovery groups to prepare for future storms," it said. "CWS emergency response specialists will be in contact with recovery groups and emergency officials to assess needs, provide training, material resources and project development support."

Church World Service prepositioned material resources at a warehouse in Ferncliff, Arkansas before the storm. CWS has emergency blankets, CWS Baby, Hygiene and clean-up buckets available for distribution by its partners. The organization also shifted staff and resources to expedite response.

Vermilyea said areas of major concern were the low-lying coastal areas around Plaquemines, Terrebonne and Houma.

"They have been so hard hit already and another event of this magnitude would continue to devastate those areas and all of the recovery work that had already been accomplished," Vermilyea said.

A devastating storm could deal a setback to those ongoing recovery efforts, she said.

"That is a concern," she said. "Right now we're just trying to focus on being prepared and making sure that people are prepared and getting out of town and securing what they do have . . . We'll deal with the aftermath of it, the recovery efforts, if need be. We hope that’s not the case. But certainly it's always a possibility."

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