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Church helps Gulf Coast recover from serial hurricanes


Church helps Gulf Coast recover from serial hurricanes

Sept. 29, 2004

A UMNS Report
By Tamie Ross*

The storm-battered South is fighting back, with help from the United Methodist Committee on Relief, conference leaders, volunteers and donors.

With damage estimates from the four hurricanes that have pounded Florida and its coastal neighbors approaching the $34 billion mark and growing, United Methodist relief workers, church members and others aligning themselves with UMCOR’s efforts aren’t deterred by the mounting damage estimates. Instead, those working on the conference level are trying to outpace the destruction.

It’s a slow go right now, however. Linda Beher, UMCOR communications director, said recovery progress in Florida wasn’t just halted by the arrival of the fourth hurricane in six weeks, it was severely hampered.

"Jeanne pretty much delayed a lot of initiatives in mid-Florida because our volunteers are now cleaning up again instead of rebuilding." Beher said. "It’s a bad situation: They had to stop with the progress and go back to square one, clearing out floodwater."

UMCOR, while working closely with relief efforts in the United States, also must focus on the international effects of the storms. Beher said teams will assess humanitarian needs in Haiti and Grenada within the next 10 days, following up on emergency grants supplied early on.

"Haiti is just such a terrible situation," Beher said. "People who have lost everything are walking barefoot in the mud, and they’re being cut from roofing aluminum and other metal they can’t see. We’re being told that many people are getting infections and suffering amputations without anesthesia because there’s no availability."

While the United States’ difficulties seemingly pale in comparison to Haiti’s, officials are confident that by helping to provide enough money and workers, rebuilding will be possible for the hundreds of thousands who have lost homes, jobs and loved ones in the series of deadly hurricanes.

The hurricanes began in mid-August with Charley, which struck Florida and moved northward into other states. That was followed by Hurricanes Frances, Ivan and Jeanne, which hit along the Gulf Coast and up through the Eastern states, causing wind damage and flooding.

Churches in Florida, Alabama and other states were responding to the damage in their communities.

"Many churches here have had double-handfuls of families that have lost everything," said Meredyth Earnest, director of communications for the United Methodist Church’s Alabama-West Florida Annual (regional) Conference. "We’re focused on getting every available resource into the hands of those who can help these people quickly."

Critical needs now are money and work teams, Earnest said. The Alabama-West Florida Conference has 146,000 members in eight districts, and every district sustained damage, either from the eye of the hurricane itself or its secondary assault of high winds, flooding and tornadoes.

To ensure every pair of hands is put right to work, a clearinghouse has been set up for people arriving to support the recovery efforts. All distribution efforts, work team assignments, flood bucket deliveries and donation efforts are centralized in Mobile, Ala. Earnest said anyone coming to the area should first call the center so that housing can be found, as accommodations are in short supply.

From a planning perspective, this also ensures volunteers are matched with the highest-priority needs. "We can also direct those who want to come with an online list of supplies they can bring to make it easier for all of us," Earnest said.

The toll-free number to call: (866) 340-1956 from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. E-mail may be sent to

Clyde Pressley, who coordinates the Mobile-based disaster recovery center, said people from every state are seeing the magnitude of the need and responding.

"They’re coming, they’re donating, they’re getting involved in whatever way they can," Pressley said. "The images on their televisions and in their newspapers are literally tugging at their hearts. And we try to prepare them to see this as a very primitive mission trip they’re embarking on. The more self-sufficient they can be, the better."

Among the first to call and volunteer after Ivan ripped through the area were Jack and Loretta Grilley of First United Methodist Church in Holland, Mich.

The retired couple told Pressley, simply, "We want to come."

Pressley said the Grilleys’ experience-Jack in shipping and distribution and Loretta in computer programming-has proven to be as invaluable as their willing spirit. Jack Grilley has coordinated much of the food and supply distribution, while Loretta has customized software that marries volunteers’ skills and available time with existing needs.

"If ever there was a case where God picked someone up and set them down where he needed them to be, this is it," Pressley said. "They are simply invaluable to us.

"I get emotional about it," he said, his voice cracking. "There’s no other way to explain what I see at work here every day."

Churches are still ministering to their communities in the most basic of ways, Pressley said. At Gulf Breeze United Methodist Church in Florida, more than 900 hot meals are served every day. Other church buildings serve as bottled-water centers, shelters, temporary sites for the Red Cross and UMCOR. The list goes on, Pressley said.

The one need that hasn’t been matched is for heavy equipment, Pressley said. "We’re not capable of doing some of the heavy cleanup because we don’t have it."

With initial recovery slated to last through November, those in the hardest-hit areas are confident that workers, equipment, supplies and funds will continue to arrive. College students are encouraged to work during fall break or on weekends. Churches planning mission trips may start thinking about bringing teams to Alabama, Florida and other destinations during the winter holidays, spring break or even next summer, Earnest said.

"It’s not too early to start planning for trips that can’t necessarily be made right now," she said. "We’ll have needs then, too, no doubt. They’ll be different needs, but they’ll be there."

Rebuilding, in the physical sense, is made easier by the spiritual rebuilding that manifests itself before Pressley each day.

"You think about the pain a church feels when one family is hurting or has a tremendous need, then think that these churches have 20 or 30 or more families who have lost everything," he said. "God is working hard here, too."

Donations can be made in several ways to UMCOR’s appeal, "Hurricanes 2004," Advance #982410. Online, donors can go to, where a secure server allows them to enter credit-card information. Checks written to UMCOR can be placed in church offering plates or mailed directly to UMCOR, 475 Riverside Drive, Room 330, New York, N.Y. 10115. Donations by credit card can be made by calling, toll free, (800) 554-8583.

UMCOR continues to need flood buckets containing supplies that volunteers use in post-hurricane cleanup. For details, go to . Completed flood buckets-with $1.50 per bucket to cover reshipping-should be sent to UMCOR Sager Brown, 101 Sager Brown Road, Baldwin, La. 70514.

*Ross is a freelance journalist based in Dallas.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or

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