Churches, saying lessons learned, prepare for next disaster

Published 6:48 pm Wednesday, July 5, 2006

Beds sat empty at Tyler Street United Methodist Church in Dallas.

Pots of spaghetti sat uneaten at Houston’s Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church.

When hurricanes Katrina and Rita swamped the Gulf Coast last year, Texas churches wanted to help, but they didn’t know how. So they did what they normally do — have food and shelter ready for whoever needed it.

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Now many religious leaders acknowledge their response wasn’t well-organized. This time, they’ll be ready.

Katrina hit the Gulf coast on Aug. 29, sending hundreds of thousands of Louisiana evacuees to Texas. Hurricane Rita slammed southeast Texas and southwest Louisiana just weeks later.

“I really sense that right now we are more adequately prepared than we would have been last year,” said Milfred Minatrea, disaster response coordinator for the Baptist General Convention of Texas. “We have systems in place that are more effective in allowing our churches to respond than we did a year ago.”

The 2.5 million-member denomination has assigned field people to coordinate with all 254 county judges in Texas, and has set up designated shelters along potential evacuation routes.

About 3 million people fled Rita when it appeared the storm would slam into Galveston and swamp Houston. The storm turned east, sparing the most populated areas, but more than 100 people died in the evacuation, many succumbing to heat exhaustion along traffic-choked and gas-deprived highways.

In the last 15 months, $5.9 million was collected in Texas Baptist churches to assist the denomination’s disaster response, Minatrea said. He and other religious leaders don’t expect their congregations to hold back giving, even if this season brings another devastating hurricane.

At Palmer Church in Houston, the arrival of thousands of weary and hungry Louisiana evacuees after Katrina stirred the faithful to welcome them with open arms and plates of steaming spaghetti. Initially, nobody came.

Church leaders shrugged it off as a dress rehearsal, fanned out with fliers, and more than two dozen showed up to be fed the next night.

“As far as the church, we’re used to responding to disasters. We respond to tornadoes, hurricanes, fires. We have an outreach center, and we deal with everyday disasters,” said the Rev. Chris Allen, pastor of Tyler Street United Methodist Church in Dallas.

Tyler Street opened up 40 beds for hurricane victims after Katrina, but only 20 were used.

“I’ll tell you my speculation: the government does not quite know how to handle the separation between church and state,” he said. “We’re not concerned about that. We care about helping people who are in need.”

Dallas housed more than 1,000 Katrina evacuees at Reunion Arena and more than 1,500 at the city Convention Center.

While looking to the future, many religious groups are still helping victims of Katrina and Rita. Tyler Street is among churches throughout the state whose summer mission trips will target the Gulf Coast.

Catholic Charities of Galveston-Houston has helped more than 74,000 people — more than 14,000 of whom have received more than $1.5 million in direct assistance, according to charity numbers.

Agencies in Houston, Tyler, Dallas and Austin have received Katrina Aid Today grants from a consortium of nine nonprofit organizations that will allow them to assist victims, assess needs and navigate through bureaucracy to get help.

Nehemiah’s Vision, a nonprofit organization in Vidor that sends volunteers to help repair storm-damaged homes in Southeast Texas, still has a list of about 375 people who need help, executive director Andy Narramore said. Dozens of church groups are coming into the area to do the repairs.

Still, the organization, formed by Baptist businessmen in the region, is gearing up for the next disaster.

“There’s a silent army being amassed,” he said. “I think when the next event happens, there will be even more people say, ‘Hey I have a place of service, there is something I can do to meet the needs of my neighbors.’”

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