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Churches provide comfort to evacuees

Multi-denominational networks of churches provide shelters, other services for thousands of people fleeing hurricane

BY BOND BRUNGARD | PASADENA, TX | September 12, 2008

"There’s lot of anxiety right now"

—Shane Whisler, Synod the Sun of Presbyterian Church USA

Most of the nearly one million people who have evacuated from the Texas coast will stay in a hotel or with relatives or go to special relief centers set up further inland or in neighboring states. But in a unique program, some local churches usually known more for their response after a disaster hits, are helping to provide comfort to many of the evacuees of Hurricane Ike.

Dr. Donald Waddleton, superintendent of the South District of The United Methodist Church’s Texas Annual Conference, said 3,000 to 4,000 evacuees in his district were headed north, where they will be helped by churches in Bryant, College Station and Marshall.

“All of these churches are open to help these incoming evacuees,” he said.

Harvey Howell, a National Response Team member for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and president of the San Antonio Area Voluntary Organization Active in Disaster (SAVOAD,) said there is shelter capacity for 16,000 people through a partnership of 20 multi-denominational churches that include United Methodists, Presbyterians and Baptists.

“Hosts of congregations across the city are engaged as cooking teams, the Texas Baptist Men who have already been preparing 3000 meals per day, sheltering teams and other volunteer needs including receiving evacuees at the San Antonio Reception Center,” Howell said.

In addition to making arrangements with inland shelters, Waddleton said, the Conference has nine vans are on standby to distribute first aid supplies, food and water to those staying in Houston’s southern suburbs.

The Rev. Tom Morgan, pastor of the St. Paul United Methodist Church in Bay City, was en-route on a six-hour trip to Abeline to get out the way of Ike. Morgan said many his congregation are elderly and stayed to wait out the storm.

“Everybody has decided to stay,” he said. “They were all capable of leaving.”

But Morgan said he’ll return as soon as he can to help his congregation get started cleaning up whatever Ike leaves behind.

The Rev. Gail Ford Smith, superintendent of the southwest district of The United Methodist Church’s Texas Annual Conference, remembers growing up in Lamarque, Texas, near Galveston when Hurricane Carla came ashore Sept. 11, 1961, between Port O’Conner and Port Lavaca with maximum sustained winds of over 150 mph as a category five hurricane.

“It was a terrible storm,” she said.

And she thinks Ike, with his powerful winds, looks like Carla as he makes his way toward the Texas coastline.

“It’s going to be tough,” she added.

And after Ike passes, Smith said the Conference expects to need help from the United Methodist Committee on Relief to identify and assist survivors with immediate and long-term needs.

“We’re prepared to help,” she said. “As soon as we can, we’ll go in and make assessments.”

In and around Dallas, Synod the Sun of Presbyterian Church USA, is helping to provide shelters in its churches near Irving and Ft. Worth and encouraging volunteers to help the evacuees from the south.

“There’s lot of anxiety right now,” said Shane Whisler, the synod’s director of communications. A lot of the worry, he added, is lingering from Gustav, which made landfall on the Louisiana coast over the Labor Day weekend.

Much farther west in Mississippi as Ike crossed the Gulf of Mexico, the hurricane was pushing water over the shore in east Biloxi, and the American Red Cross opened a shelter in the Lagniappe Presbyterian Church in Bay St. Louis.

Jay Huffstatler, president of Mississippi VOAD, said there is still some anxiety here from Gustav, which caused some flooding nearby when it crossed into the nearby Louisiana coast.

“We have a lot of issues right now,” he concluded.

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