Christian groups continue efforts to rebuild areas struck by Hurricanes Katrina, Rita

Four years after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck the Gulf Coast, reminders of the devastation left by these storms remain. Christian-based relief efforts in the area continue. Among them is Mississippi United Methodist Disaster Response, located in hard-hit Biloxi. Constantly living with Katrina’s legacy has become second nature to Larry Davis, the ministry’s business manager. He mentioned the oft-cited belief that it will take 10 years–2015–until the region is fully restored to its full pre-Katrina shape. “I hate to say I’ve grown accustomed to it, but with what we’ve seen since the storm, you learn to do what you’ve got to do,” Davis said. “The scope of damage was such that a lot of people here were directly affected. That takes time to overcome. A lot of our clients didn’t have insurance. There are still a number of clients who inherited their home or are elderly and they haven’t had a mortgage payment since 1960, so they didn’t see the need for home insurance. We’ve got several in that situation.” Don’t consider the idea, either, that the volume of work is slowing down. If anything, it’s increasing. Davis said there are 187 people currently in the queue for the home rebuilding project. Ninety houses are being worked on 97 are waiting to have work started. UM Disaster Response has rebuilt over 3,000 houses in the last four years. They have completed 60 new houses from the ground up and it is an increasing trend, with 14 of the current projects as new builds. “We have a waiting list, and we’ve called probably 100 people and told them to call back next month to see if we might have the ability to start on their homes,” Davis said. “You try real hard not to give people false hope. After four years, patience can wear pretty thin. That number of people on the list will probably increase next month. We’ve had to shut it down for a little while to get caught up.” Davis said they still encounter people living in the temporary FEMA trailers brought in immediately after the storm, but many people have learned to live with damaged homes as part of their daily lives. “We typically get people who are living with other family members or people living in houses with damage. There are a few that bought storm-damaged trailers or mobile homes after the storm. We try to get everybody to stay sanitary and secure.” Homes are built using a standard set of plans, with the cost of bulk-purchased materials running around $45,000 per house, Davis said. Everything is put together with volunteer labor except air conditioning, plumbing and HVAC. Millions of dollars came pouring into the disaster response office and several others operated by United Methodist conferences in Alabama, Louisiana and Texas right after Katrina, Davis said. Now money comes from operating fund expenses and partnering with churches around the country to bring the teams of needed volunteers. “We are asking churches to partner with us to help raise money,” he said. “Right now we are working with one church in Maryland that is raising $40,000 and will send a team to come down and work on the house.” Saying he’s been very hesitant to predict when all the work will be done, Davis said the budget projections have the agency wrapping up its program sometime in 2011 or 2012. However long UM Disaster Response is rebuilding the blessings will flow both ways for homeowners and volunteers, Beth Dean said. Dean is the organization’s volunteer coordinator. She said volunteer teams usually consist of about 30 members, and multiple teams will often work on the same house. Teams have come from as far away as Germany to help build, although the work is very seasonal, leading to the drawn out process. “The weather this time of the year is very hot and we are at the height of hurricane season now in August and September,” she said. “We fill up pretty fast in our peak period of October through April and are so blessed for the outpouring of support we’ve received.” Many volunteers leave having experienced spiritual renewal. “We keep evaluations on record, and in the comments section on the bottom most people say it’s the most meaningful participation experience they’ve ever had,” she said. “We consistently hear people talking about how it allowed them to get to know their Christian friends a better and being able to answer the call of Christ in their lives. … The surprising piece for so many volunteers is that out of active giving on their part they actually get back as much if not more in return that the homeowners.” Dean knows one day her job will be done. When that time comes it will be amid a radically revamped landscape. “If you would have driven along Highway 90 (along the Gulf Coast) four years ago on August 28th, you would have seen lots of life, lots of small businesses and restaurants, the typical things that you would think of seeing in Florida,” she said. “You would have seen the area very much alive in the history that made the coast with antebellum homes and long-standing family businesses. “While things have come back compared to August 29th (2005), you see a lot of open spaces. There are more elevated houses and not as many restaurants and beachfront hotels. There is a lot of construction and a sense that life is returning, but it’s a different kind normal. “Even with that different sense, at the end of the day it’s still home.” The concept of home has completely turned upside down for most residents of New Orleans, 90 miles to the west of Biloxi. That fact is certainly true for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, which is still undergoing the transformation brought on by Katrina. About 2,500 buildings in the archdiocese suffered wind damage, flood damage or both in Katrina, said Sarah Comiskey, director of communications. Since 2006, the archdiocese has been in Phase 2 of its rebuilding phase, focusing on specific parishes which were not allowed to reopen. Comiskey said decreased attendance numbers have leveled off, particularly in suburban areas on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. That being said, the number of local parishes has dropped from 142 at the start of Phase 2 to 108 today. “Whenever you close parish, it’s always very painful,” Comiskey said. “People understand there has been hurricane damage and that the lack of a population in certain neighborhoods makes it impossible to keep parishes open, but that doesn’t make it any easier.” The archdiocese is also looking at having fewer priests over the next year, which may prompt further changes. Impacts have also been felt on Catholic schools. The City of New Orleans has become an educational laboratory with three different public school systems with a network of private, public and charter schools. The number of Catholic schools has dipped from 108 before Katrina to 85 now, Comiskey said. The largest impediment for the schools at the moment is the same as it would be nationally – the recession. “The economic system has been more of an issue than anything with the public school system,” she said. “Parents paying tuition, especially with multiple kids in the system, is a problem for some. We are facing to a slight decline in enrollment that we attribute more to the economy than anything else.” No less serious are the effects of Rita on the Texas coast, a fact Jim Hall has seen up close. Hall is the Executive Director and CEO of Nehemiah’s Vision, based on Nehemiah 2:20 and the Old Testament book which illustrates the faithfulness to God’s commands by Nehemiah to rebuild the Jerusalem wall. Affiliated with the Baptist General Council, Nehemiah’s Vision will have completed 700 rebuilds from the ground up by the end of the year. The ministry begins with churches and pastor’s residences and then branches out into a still much-needed base of outside work. Hall said that between Rita and Ike last year, 60 to 70 percent of the homes on the Bolivar Peninsula that runs along the Gulf Coast on the south shore of Galveston Bay have needed to rebuilt since the dual strikes of Rita and Ike, sometimes twice. “Unfortunately it’s not hard to be underinsured when you’re dealing with flood damage,” Hall said. “Especially if you’re financially strapped, as a lot of people are right now, spending an extra $3,000 to $4,000 on flood insurance just isn’t feasible.” Hall reported the same dynamic as Beth Dean did in Mississippi with the seasonal nature of volunteers in addition to availability of construction materials. “Some materials are donated and they always come in streaks,” he said. “They tend to come in more right after the storm comes in when there is the most amount of attention. When the immediate interest dwindles and the news media leaves after the storms, we’re the ones still here helping people put their lives people. “I’m from Atlanta and I’ll be going up there in a few weeks to speak on a fund-raising trip, and I can guarantee most folks will be quite surprised with how grave the situation still is here one year after Ike.” Hall has been on the job three months after working as an executive with the Walk Through the Bible ministry. He’s already seen things that have further opened his eyes to faith that have astounded him. “For the majority of people who come down here to volunteer, this becomes a life-changing experience,” Hall said. “From the feedback we’ve received this summer, we had five percent of people saying this was the first time they decided to make a commitment to Christ and many who return home more committed to serving their church and more committed to mission work. “We had one example of a guy who was living in a FEMA trailer who had lost his home and his business. He found another job, but then was laid off and his wife left him. He started drinking and all he wanted to do was die and he bought a gun for that purpose. “We had two girls here wearing the bright-colored T-shirts we’re known for come to his door randomly to talk to him about Christ and where he would go if he died today. That broke him down and we were able to get him into a church and help get him back on his feet. Throughout this process, we’ve seen God do some tremendous things.” Links: Mississippi United Methodist Disaster Response: http://www.mississippi-umc.org/page.asp?PKValue=763 Archdiocese of New Orleans: http://www.arch-no.org Nehemiah’s Vision: http://www.nehemiahsvision.com

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