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United Methodists assist hurricane evacuees at Camp Gruber

 


United Methodists assist hurricane evacuees at Camp Gruber

Oct. 4, 2005

A UMNS Report
By Linda Bloom*

They came with their vans.

For most of September, United Methodists from both the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference and Oklahoma Annual (regional) Conference assisted Hurricane Katrina evacuees housed at Camp Gruber, a National Guard training site.

They took the evacuees shopping in Muskogee, about 14 miles away; arranged telephone calls; assisted with paperwork; and helped them move to temporary housing or to be with relatives.

By the end of September, the work was nearly complete. Only about 75 of nearly 1,600 evacuees who had arrived earlier in the month remained at Camp Gruber, according to Phillis McCarty, disaster response coordinator for the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference.

Most of the remaining evacuees are people with special needs or conditions, added the Rev. Anita Phillips, who played a lead role in getting the volunteer services at Camp Gruber up and running. The trauma experienced by the evacuees who remain, she said, “has compounded everything in their lives. They need some individual care and casework.”

Phillips, who has training in disaster recovery through the United Methodist Committee on Relief, took charge of coordination for Community Organizations Active in Disaster on the base. The volunteers also worked with the Red Cross and state agencies.

Colleen Shaffer, former co-director of the Oklahoma Conference disaster response program, provided assistance through that conference, according to McCarty. “Our basic functions have been to coordinate volunteers and coordinate transportation for the evacuees,” she said.

Many of those who had fled the ravages of Hurricane Katrina came from the New Orleans Superdome, looking for housing. “As they came through Texas, they were turned away repeatedly,” Phillips said, explaining that other shelters were full. When the buses arrived at Camp Gruber over Labor Day Weekend, the evacuees “were just so happy to be in Oklahoma and in a safe place.”

Some of the evacuees told Phillips that it was not the hurricane itself but the chaos afterward that “destroyed their sense of security and peace of mind.”

Without the ecumenical effort of local churches, responding to the needs at Camp Gruber would have been difficult, according to Phillips.

The Southern Baptists set up a chaplaincy network. A Pentecostal pastor was in charge of assigning small projects to individual congregations. The ministerial alliance of Muskogee, led by a Church of Christ pastor, matched church sponsorship with those needing permanent housing at a center established at First United Methodist Church in Muskogee.

United Methodists met a variety of needs on the base, from operating computers to sorting out the mountains of donations to simply being a friendly presence. The denomination’s connectional system made such organization possible.

“We tried to have our pastors (from both conferences) on base all hours except for curfew,” Phillips said. “We would direct them to go to the places where there were the highest volumes of people … to be that compassionate listener.”

Transportation services have been in constant demand. United Methodists drive evacuees to the bus depot, the airport or wherever they need to go. “When you drive up (to Camp Gruber), you’ll see four or five United Methodist vans standing by and ready,” she pointed out.

McCarty estimated that United Methodists from around the state provided about 90 percent of the vans used for transportation.

Of the evacuees who have departed Camp Gruber, she said, about a third have returned to Louisiana to wait until they can get back into New Orleans, another third have moved in with family members both inside and outside Oklahoma, and the remainder are staying in the state, at least temporarily. Some churches are adopting families “and getting them set up with jobs and homes.”

“It’s been a wild ride,” Phillips said about the experience of assisting Hurricane Katrina evacuees. “I’ve seen the very, very best of what churches and communities can do and how God’s people respond to the hurt and pain of others.”

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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