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Churches open doors to Georges survivors

BY WOODY WOODRICK | MADISON, MS | September 29, 1998

MADISON, MS (Sept. 29, 1998) -- When Charles Weaver packed his family in

the car at 4 a.m. Sunday, he didn't know where he was going. But with

Hurricane Georges bearing down on the central Gulf Coast, Weaver knew the

New Orleans suburb of Metarie, LA, was no place to stay.

Some four hours and 200 miles later, Weaver and his family sat in the

parking lot of a Burger King restaurant in Madison, MS, still wondering

where they would go.

"I had no idea where we would go," he said. "I knew everything was

booked 50 miles north of Memphis. We were actually thinking about going to

the hills of Missouri and pitching a tent."

Meanwhile, the Rev. Bruce Taylor received a phone call from one of his

members at Parkway Hills United Methodist Church, a new congregation in Madison. The church member had been to Burger King and had seen what were obviousl

y evacuees at the restaurant. Taylor went to the Burger King, met the

Weavers and began working on finding them a place to stay.

By mid-afternoon, a shelter for 35 people opened at the Madison church.

The effort was coordinated among three United Methodist Churches in


Setting up the shelter was a bit of logistical miracle. The church held

a consecration lunch for 600 people following its morning worship. But by 3

p.m., the center had been converted to a shelter.

To use the building, the American Red Cross required the church to

provide 24-hour medical personnel. Doctors and nurses volunteered, the

Madison Fire Department offered its emergency medical technicians and the

Madison Police Department provided officers for security. A local

supermarket provided some food, but most came from church members. In

addition, church members donated towels, bath items, games, sleeping bags

and other items. Other people simply showed up and asked what needed to


The shelter used the Madison Church's Christian Life Center. Several

evacuees from New Orleans were Hispanic, and a Spanish teacher at a local

high school spent several hours at the shelter helping church members

communicate with their guests.

Jose Bernardo, also of New Orleans, was another who arrived in Madison

seeking assistance. He had five family members, two cats and a dog with him.

"We left Saturday and went to a Holiday Inn in Hattiesburg for one

night, but they didn't have a room for us to stay more than one night,"

Bernardo said. "At a gas station, someone told us (about the shelter). They

greeted us with love."

The shelter volunteers found housing for the Bernardos' pets, even

taking some family members to the home where the pets would be housed.

"At first my feelings about going to a shelter were negative," Bernardo

said. "The minute we walked in the door, they were greeting us with love.

They opened their homes us... Wow. They really changed my way of thinking.

There are good people out there living the way God wants us to live."

At Wesley Pines, a United Methodist Church conference center in Gallman,

MS, the staff began preparing for evacuees on Friday and those needing

assistance began drifting in the next morning. One New Orleans couple was

making their second trip to Wesley Pines for shelter. They had also stayed

at the conference center when Hurricane Andrew hit five years ago.

In addition to the 140 people staying at the center, people finding

shelter at a local Baptist church were brought to the center for showers.

Volunteers from Methodist churches in Gallman, Hazlehurst and Crystal

Springs, all within a few miles of the camp, pitched in.

Carol Otillio learned about Wesley Pines while stopped at a rest stop

along I-55. She heard a security guard giving directions to the camp,

inquired about it and went there.

"Since we stepped out of the car, we've been in heaven," she said. "If

I'm ever able to repay their kindness, I will do it."

Otillio, a Minnesota native whose father was Methodist, was traveling

with her daughter, a friend, three other children, two dogs a hamster and a

rabbit. All found refuge at Wesley Pines.

Felton Jones Jr. and members of his family left New Orleans at 6:30 a.m.

Sept. 27 in three vehicles. Over the next 10 hours, they drove from town to

town seeking shelter. They eventually stopped at 20 motels, Jones said.

Finally, they wound up in Gallman. They had been driving 10 hours and

were no more than two hours from their home. While buying gas, they were

approached and asked if they needed a place to stay and were referred to

Wesley Pines.

"They've provided us with comfort. They've allowed us to settle down,

calm down and call our families," said Angela Fassitt, Jones'

sister-in-law. "The accommodations, the food, the people, everything has

been just wonderful."

Posted 9:00 a.m.EDT - September 29, 1998

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