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Arkansas church camps receive Katrina evacuees

 


Arkansas church camps receive Katrina evacuees

Sept. 16, 2005         

By Jane Dennis*

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (UMNS) — Waves of Hurricane Katrina survivors flooded into Arkansas in the wake of the devastating Aug. 29 storm that demolished New Orleans and dozens of coastal communities in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana.

Two weeks after the horrendous storm, Arkansas government officials estimated there were 5,000 displaced people at 26 sites across the state and another 45,000 people in private homes and hotels.

Fort Chaffee, a military camp near Fort Smith, was the first stop in Arkansas for many of the evacuees, some of whom were airlifted out of New Orleans on C-130 military transport planes. From there, smaller groups were bused to church and Boy Scout camps across the state. Gov. Mike Huckabee’s office has coordinated use of the camps.

Seven United Methodist camps were put on alert to receive evacuees. As of Sept. 13, three of the seven — Shoal Creek near Dardanelle, Mount Sequoyah at Fayetteville and Camp Aldersgate in Little Rock — were housing evacuees. The other sites — Camp Tanako near Hot Springs, Mount Eagle near Clinton, Wayland Springs Camp near Imboden and Bear Creek Camp at Marianna — were standing ready for evacuees.

Most of the evacuees arrived at the three United Methodist camps by school bus or chartered bus and carrying a garbage bag or two containing a few precious possessions.

Four United Methodist camps in Louisiana, three in Mississippi, two in Texas and one in Georgia also housed evacuees and relief workers. Twelve church camps in Oklahoma, Tennessee, Illinois, Georgia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Arkansas, Oregon and Virginia offered to host both evacuees and relief workers. A list of sites and contact information is available at the United Methodist Board of Discipleship website. Katrina damaged five camp and retreat centers in Louisiana and Mississippi.

All of the camp and retreat centers hosting evacuees and relief workers need financial support and supply donations to cover the needs, according to Kevin Witt, director of camping and retreat ministries at the United Methodist Board of Discipleship. In many cases, the centers faced a lack of normal revenue because they must limit serving other groups while hosting evacuees, he said.

Late-night arrivals

The identification and registration process at Fort Chaffee proved slow and tedious when each step was repeated several thousand times over. After numerous delays in processing and transportation, the Rev. Bobby Bell of Fort Smith “drove a couple of church vans over to Chaffee, loaded up some people and sent them on to Shoal Creek Camp,” said Pat Bodenhamer, the Arkansas Conference minister for mission and outreach.

The vans arrived at the United Methodist camp around 11 p.m. on Sept. 5 and unloaded 88 evacuees, mostly senior adults. Some were in wheelchairs or used walkers or canes.

“Tired is not the word to describe these folks when they arrived. They were beyond exhaustion,” said the Rev. Herschel McClurkin, a retired United Methodist pastor from Alma assisting with the evacuees.

The visitors arrived at the rustic, open-air cabins to find neatly made beds with health kits and letters of welcome. The governor’s office told camp leaders to plan on housing the evacuees for at least 31 days. As with all properties used as shelters, supervisory camp staff or volunteers must be on hand 24 hours a day for processing evacuees.

Volunteers from area churches provided meals as well as activities such as music concerts, singing and bingo games. Additional phone lines were installed to help the evacuees reach friends and family.

By Sept. 13, the number at Shoal Creek had dwindled to five, as evacuees contacted friends and relatives, moved to other locations or found permanent housing.

Mount Sequoyah, the South Central Jurisdictional conference and retreat center in Fayetteville, initially housed 57 New Orleans area evacuees, but as of Sept. 13 had about 35. Several of the evacuees found employment or enrolled in the University of Arkansas, while many of the school-age children were enrolled in public schools.

United Methodist volunteers and students from Philander Smith College also cleaned a vacant three-story dormitory on the Little Rock college campus in anticipation of its use by displaced people.

Camp Aldersgate, a facility in Little Rock owned by the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries’ Women’s Division, received about 60 displaced people, mostly men, from Fort Chaffee at 3 a.m. Sept. 3. One of the first requests was for a translator for two Vietnamese evacuees who spoke limited English.

Over the course of the next 10 days, the number was reduced to about 45.

Churches care for many

In addition to the camps, several local churches were providing shelters. As of Sept. 13, Sugar Hill United Methodist Church in Texarkana was caring for 41 evacuees, Dumas First United Methodist Church had 20 and Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church in Little Rock had 20. Dozens of churches were providing meals and housing assistance and helping evacuees at local motels and shelters.

The Pulaski Heights church focused on caring for families. Partitions were set up in the church’s Christian Life Center to create semi-private “apartments” for up to six families.

The church created “a family environment where (displaced people) can be ministered to and supported as a family unit,” said volunteer Barbara Pardue. Families with young children faced a difficult challenge trying to live in some of the larger shelters in the state, where 200 or 300 people were under one roof, she said.

“We did it on faith,” said Associate Pastor Lynn Lindsey. “We’ve never done anything like this before. But people really wanted to help. Our phone was ringing off the wall.”

Plans to stay 

The 3,600-member congregation had little trouble rounding up volunteers to serve meals, sort donations, provide child care and serve as overnight hosts.

“We are very happy to be here. They’ve been wonderful to us,” said Erica Preatto, who left the New Orleans suburb of Marrero the day before Katrina hit. Preatto, who is seven months pregnant, traveled the 350 miles to Little Rock in a 2003 Honda Civic along with her husband, Johnell Williams, his mother, Joyce Williams, their 10- and 11-year old sons and 1-year-old daughter.

Their new friends at the Pulaski Heights church helped in many ways. The boys were enrolled in school and provided uniforms and school supplies. Johnell, a barber by trade, was offered and accepted a job in a local barbershop. Erica, a water-quality expert who worked for the city of New Orleans, was interviewing for jobs and making regular visits to a local obstetrician. The family’s top priority was finding permanent housing.

“Little Rock is going to be my home,” Johnell said. “I’m staying.”

Donations of relief supplies and water given to the annual conference by individuals and businesses across Arkansas have filled 17 tractor-trailer loads, bound for United Methodist Committee on Relief operations in Louisiana and Mississippi. According to Roy Smith, Arkansas Conference director of ministries, the monetary response by Arkansas United Methodists to UMCOR for hurricane relief has topped  $1.7 million.

Donations to support the United Methodist response to the Hurricane Katrina tragedy can be made online at www.methodistrelief.org and by phone at (800) 554-8583. Checks can be written to UMCOR, designated for “Hurricanes 2005 Global,” Advance No. 982523, and left in church offering plates or mailed directly to UMCOR, P.O. Box 9068, New York, NY 10087-9068.

*Dennis is editor of the Arkansas United Methodist, the newspaper of the Arkansas Annual Conference.

News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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