Evacuees cope as rescues continue

As extent of disaster becomes known, faith-based organizations ready response.

BY PJ HELLER | HOUSTON | September 14, 2008

Certified nurse aid Terri Wilson offers a doll to a young evacuee at the First Presbyterian Church of San Antonio, one of 20 churches in the area serving people with special needs.

As the largest search-and-rescue effort in Texas history got under way Saturday along the Gulf Coast following a devastating hit from Hurricane Ike, faith-based organizations were gearing up for yet another response to the nation's latest natural disaster.

"We are envisioning a massive long-term recovery," said Harvey Howell, , a national response team member with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) and president of the San Antonio Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster. "Right now we are planting the seeds for a massive long-term recovery operation."

"We're ready to help right this moment but the truth is the most important help is going to be long-term recovery," added Amy Elder, executive director of Texas Interagency Interfaith Disaster Response. "Today we don’t know exactly what that means. We're really having to take it day by day."

Other faith-based groups echoed her comments.

"Until more is known about the scope of damage from this storm, the response is simply immeasurable," Lutheran Disaster Response officials said on their Web site. "However, there will be needs in the affected areas, and Lutheran Disaster Response will seek to serve those communities in their recovery process."

Tom Hazelwood, head of domestic disaster response for the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), was scheduled to be in east Texas on Monday.

"Additionally, United Methodist Volunteers in Mission and UMCOR are also preparing to coordinate any needed efforts following the storm," officials said. "Specially-trained early response teams will be the first volunteers to go, once the area is deemed safe and secure."

"Rain and other weather factors are making it impossible to assess the damage," added Mennonite Disaster Response, who noted coordinator Jerry Klassen rode out the storm with his wife in Port Arthur, Texas. "It is hoped that late Saturday and Sunday conditions will allow for some damage assessment and early response."

Elder said it would take time to determine the extent of destruction caused by Ike, a massive Category 2 storm which slammed into the Texas coast early Saturday with 110 mph winds.

"We knew this would be a massive storm," Elder said. "Today and over the next few days we will learn of the destruction caused and find more and more ways to respond."

That response comes on top of efforts by faith-based organizations who have already been helping stricken residents following storms including Hurricanes Dolly, Fay and Gustav and Tropical Storm Hanna.

"Hurricanes Fay, Gustav and Ike, as well as Tropical Storm Hanna, have left a trail of death and destruction across the nations of the Caribbean, throughout Florida and across the Gulf Coast of the United States," said the United Church of Christ, which said it had issued an appeal for $250,000 and 1,001 cleanup buckets to support emergency and long-term relief and rebuilding efforts in response to storms during the 2008 Atlantic hurricane season.

Elder said that while faith-based groups may be stretched thin by all the responses, they would continue to help.

"Because we're stretched thin doesn't mean that we're going to stop doing what has to be to done to help people recover," she said. "If we're not caring for each other, then we just missed the boat."

She also said lessons learned in Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 would help in Ike's recovery.

"We learned a lot of lessons in Katrina," Elder said. "We can do better. We can make recovery kinder and gentler . . . "

Some local faith-based groups, including 20 churches of different denominations in the San Antonio area, were providing shelter for evacuees with special needs under the umbrella of Baptist Children and Family Services.

At the First Presbyterian Church in San Antonio, 22 evacuees — or "guests" as they are called — were staying at the facility. They ranged from an elderly couple who fled their home in eastern Harris County to an 11-member family from Alvin, Texas. Volunteers from the church, along with nursing staff, were tending to the needs of the evacuees.

As the faith-based community waited to move into affected areas and launch their response, more than 1,500 rescuers fanned out by air, boat and ground to try to reach those who refused to evacuate, despite warnings that if they stayed the powerful storm would result in "certain death." Flooded roads made access difficult to many areas and officials said thousands of people could still be trapped in their homes.

"For the past few days, our top priority was evacuating our citizens from the strike zone," Texas Gov. Rick Perry said at a news conference in Austin. "Today, we are focused on search and rescue."

Perry said the effort was "the largest search-and-rescue operation in Texas history" and that the challenge was "far from over."

He advised residents who evacuated not to try to return home until given an official go-ahead.

The storm flooded thousands of homes, knocked out electricity to millions of people and blew out windows in skyscrapers in Houston. Several homes and businesses in Galveston burned, with firefighters unable to reach them due to the storm.

Orange County, eastern Harris County and Galveston bore the brunt of Ike's fury. Power was out in those three areas, as well as in Chambers and Jefferson counties. Only emergency vehicles and first-responders were being allowed on Galveston Island.

"All of those areas are dealing with severe flooding," Perry said, adding that it was too early to provide damage estimates for the region.

In Galveston, the island's main hospital, the University of Texas Medical Branch, had 2 feet of water on its first floor. Four patients had to be rescued from the facility.

At least two deaths in Texas were blamed on the storm, which was responsible for more than 80 fatalities in the Caribbean as Ike moved through the area.

Even so, the "worst-case scenario" that some had predicted — including an expected massive storm surge of 20 to 25 feet which only reached 15 feet — never happened.

"We pray for the best but prepare for the worst," Perry said. "Fortunately, the worst-case scenario that was projected in some areas did not occur. The surge was nowhere near as large as we thought it was going to be but there's plenty of damage out there."

After crashing into the coast, Ike weakened to a tropical storm as it headed inland. By 8 p.m. EST, Ike's winds had dropped to 40 mph. It was heading toward western Arkansas and was forecast to be over the Midwest on Sunday. The National Hurricane Center warned that Ike could spin off tornadoes Saturday night in northeastern Texas, northern Louisiana, Arkansas and southern Missouri. It also warned that locally heavy rainfall could produce flooding.

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