- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 27, 2005

When municipal, state and federal governments faltered in their early response to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina, hundreds of churches and synagogues stepped up to help.

Nearly two months after Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, religious groups have pledged that feeding, clothing and sheltering survivors of the storm will continue for as long as necessary. Cleaning up and rebuilding has just begun.

“We’ve provided more than $11 million worth of in-kind labor since the hurricanes,” says Joe Conway, spokesman for Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, an agency of the 16-million-member Southern Baptist Convention. “In terms of rebuilding, we’ll probably be here for several years.”

About 7,000 Baptists from congregations in 41 states have provided relief. The Southern Baptists — the nation’s largest non-Catholic denomination — have not stopped cooking since Katrina hit. By Tuesday, they had cooked and served more than 9.3 million hot meals, beating their record of 2.5 million meals served after Hurricane Andrew devastated South Florida in 1992, Mr. Conway says.

“We did the majority of the cooking for the Salvation Army, and probably the Red Cross as well, and for ourselves,” he says.

Says Jeffrey Jellets, territorial disaster services coordinator for the Salvation Army: “The Southern Baptists cook the meals. We load them into containers and put them on mobile feeding units and go into New Orleans and other hard-hit areas and distribute them.”

By Tuesday, the Baptists, using mobile shower units and facilities of cooperating churches in the region, had provided more than 65,000 showers for those without water and a variety of other services, including child care and debris removal.

Shelley Borysiewicz, spokeswoman for Catholic Charities USA, says her group has raised $63 million to support the disaster relief work of its local agencies.

“That amount is a record. We raised $32 million after 9/11,” Ms. Borysiewicz says.

“The most important work will come in the weeks and months ahead,” she says. “We know we will be [in the Gulf Coast region] providing services for three to five years.”

Temporary housing for hurricane refugees is a major component of the relief services that religious groups provide. By the end of September, relief workers in stricken Gulf Coast states estimated that 500,000 people had taken refuge in housing provided by faith-based institutions.

Catholic Charities says its 70 local agencies have concentrated on getting refugees into housing that could become permanent, such as vacant apartments or in buildings owned by the group.

In St. Louis, Ms. Borysiewicz says, 130 refugees have been resettled in an Adopt-a-Family program run by Catholic Charities. The program helps them find housing. It pays the first month’s rent and utility costs for up to six months, and helps families find other necessities.

She cites similar resettlement programs in Los Angeles and Lansing, Mich., and says the Catholic Charities agency in St. Louis held a job fair for refugees. In addition, Catholic Charities has provided medical care and prescription medicines.

Nearly 16,000 volunteers from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) have served in weekend “Chainsaw Brigades” to clear storm debris in Louisiana and Mississippi.

The volunteers, mostly from Mormon congregations in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina and Texas, cut and clear debris from fallen trees and cover damaged roofs with tarps to prevent water damage while hurricane victims await insurance settlements and repairs.

“They remove fallen trees from the roofs of houses … and they also remove trees that are blocking driveways and roads. They’ve put in more than 31,400 man-days of volunteer service,” says Karla Brandau, spokeswoman for the Mormons’ North American Southeast Area public affairs office, who has been on the scene for much of this recovery work.

“This service is open to anyone in the community,” Mrs. Brandau says. Demand for these services is high, and many people have been quoted fees of $25,000 for the same work the Mormons are doing for free, she says.

In the Baltimore area, about 30 congregations formed a relief group called “Operation Healing: Ties That Bind,” which pledged to raise $100,000 in the first 10 days after Katrina.

Just four days after Katrina ravaged New Orleans and the coastlines of Mississippi and Alabama, the group had raised $250,000 to help hurricane victims.

As of Oct. 13, $600,000 had been raised, according to officials at New Psalmist Baptist Church in Catonsville, Md., which helped organize the drive. “We are in it for the long haul,” says the Rev. Frank M. Reid III, minister of Bethel AME, another participant in Operation Healing.

“This initiative is not for immediate assistance as much as it is for the sustained assistance. … ‘Operation Healing: Ties That Bind’ will still be around in the continued efforts that will be needed months down the road,” Mr. Reid says.

The members of CedarCreek Church, a nondenominational congregation in Perrysburg, Ohio, have made a yeoman’s effort. The church dispatched six semitrailer loads of nonperishable foods, bottled water, diapers, baby formula, toilet paper and other staples to hurricane victims.

The Perrysburg relief effort started when one church member, who once lived in hurricane-ravaged Slidell, La., near New Orleans, learned from a friend “about the devastation in Covington, a poor, predominantly black community 40 miles north of New Orleans,” says Ed McCauley, executive pastor of operations at CedarCreek.

Mr. McCauley and other CedarCreek worshippers who have gone to storm-damaged areas along the Gulf Coast to assist with cleanup efforts say they discovered that smaller towns such as Covington, on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, were overshadowed by the urgent needs in New Orleans. So they have focused their donations and help on such forgotten communities.

“It’s unbelievable. We saw miles of downed trees, but people didn’t have the money to pay for tree services to pull huge trees off their homes. Next week, we’re taking professional roofers who belong to our church to repair roofs for people who don’t have the money to do that.”

The international relief organization Samaritan’s Purse, headed by the Rev. Franklin Graham, has contributed $25 million to help restore houses damaged by the hurricanes, says Jeremy Blume, a spokesman for the group.

“This money will go for services that include repairing houses and patching roofs,” Mr. Blume says. “The vast majority of this money comes from thousands and thousands of small donations from people who’ve known Franklin Graham for many years.”

About 500 Samaritan’s Purse volunteers have been working in post-hurricane relief efforts. The group also has provided medical teams to care for refugees in shelters and will buy 300 mobile homes for displaced families.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour hailed the relief efforts by churches in his state. “Churches really filled a huge service by providing the essentials to evacuees, such as food, water, shelters, and showers,” Mr. Barbour said. “The state of Mississippi, as well as its citizens, appreciate the kindness and generosity of the churches that helped out during the Katrina disaster.”

Pressed by Republicans in Congress and by the Red Cross, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced on Sept. 26 it will reimburse churches and other religious groups that have provided food, shelter and supplies to hurricane victims.

FEMA officials say this would be the first time the government has made large payments to religious organizations for assisting in the aftermath of a domestic natural disaster. Groups would be eligible for compensation only if they ran emergency shelters, food distribution centers or medical facilities at the request of state or local governments in states that have declared emergencies.

Several civil-liberty advocacy groups, including the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State and the American Civil Liberties Union, say this violates the boundary between church and state. They accuse the Bush administration of using the decision to woo religious conservatives who may have been disillusioned with the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina.

The Rev. Robert E. Reccord, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s North American Mission Board, made clear that his church’s disaster relief response is not contingent on government reimbursement.

However, faith-based groups should not be discriminated against for helping to do what the government should have done, Mr. Reccord says.

“What we hear over and over again is, ‘Thank you for being the first on the scene. We don’t know what we would have done without you,’” he told Fox News Channel.

• Researchers Amy Baskerville and John Sopko contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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