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Remembering Rita: Episcopalians continue to help Gulf Coast recover

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
9/21/2006

A satellite image shows Hurricane Rita September 24 as it plowed through Texas and Louisiana.  

 
ENS photo by Carol Barnwell
Ginger Polomo prepares medications for St. James residents in the makeshift pharmacy set up at Camp Allen.   (ENS photo by Carol Barnwell)

 
[Episcopal News Service]  A year ago this week, the Gulf Coast of the United States received the second of the 2005 hurricane season's two-fisted punch.

Coming less than a month after Hurricane Katrina, Rita grazed the Florida Keys and Cuba as a category 2 hurricane on September 21 and made landfall between Sabine Pass, Texas, and Johnson's Bayou, Louisiana, on September 24 as a category 3 hurricane with winds clocked at 115 mph.

More than 100 people were killed by Rita and the storm's aftermath.

The storm destroyed homes, businesses, and the economy of several coastal communities in Louisiana, including those in the areas of Vermilion, Creole, Cameron, and Port Lafourche. Thousands of houses were swept away and local industries, especially shrimping and oyster farming, were devastated. The hurricane destroyed the town of Cameron and destroyed or damaged many homes beyond repair in Abbeville and Sulphur. It is estimated that Rita's assault resulted in 8.7 million cubic yards of debris.

The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported Rita's storm surge reached 15 feet at the Cameron Parish shoreline and up to 12 feet at the Vermilion Parish coastline and at St. Mary Parish near Louisa, along the southwestern Louisiana coastline. The surge also swamped areas of the southeastern coastline that had been devastated by Katrina.

More than 365,000 Louisiana households and businesses registered with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for help as a result of Hurricane Rita. More than 110,000 registered in Calcasieu Parish and nearly 18,000 in Vermilion Parish. The combination of Katrina and Rita prompted what some called the largest national housing crisis since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

The Episcopal Church has been deeply involved in the work of the past year as the Gulf Coast began to recover from hurricanes Katrina and Rita. In states that were reeling from the devastation caused about a month earlier by Hurricane Katrina, evacuations were ordered and Episcopal Relief Development (ERD) prepared to assist the areas likely to be damaged by Rita's force before the storm hit.

In the very early days of the aftermath, ERD partnered with the Diocese of Western Louisiana to assist parishes reaching out to displaced people in the region, to supply food and shelter, and to prepare for involvement in programs for trauma counseling, psychosocial care, and help with the unmet needs of vulnerable populations.

ERD also assisted with evacuation and relocation expenses, and helped in coordinating the diocese's disaster recovery activities and work with a coordinator to organize collection and relief points in the Lake Charles and Acadiana convocations, which includes the Vermilion parish and the area near Abbeville and Sulphur.

ERD pledged early on to work with diocesan partners to develop a long-term, comprehensive rehabilitation program to help communities affected by both hurricanes.

More information about the work of ERD and Episcopal Migration Ministries is available at http://www.episcopalchurch.org/3577_77345_ENG_HTM.htm, http://www.episcopalchurch.org/3577_69050_ENG_HTM.htm, http://www.episcopalchurch.org/3577_69050_ENG_HTM.htm, http://www.er-d.org/newsroom_64626_ENG_HTM.htm

On September 22, 2005, the bishop and several staff members of the Diocese of Texas evacuated their homes and offices in Houston in advance of Rita's landfall and relocated to Camp Allen, the diocesan conference center in Navasota, Texas. Camp Allen also housed residents of the diocesan nursing home and another nursing home, and many others took refuge there as well.

Then archdeacon, now Bishop Suffragan-elect Dena Harrison relocated to Austin with backup files for the diocesan office. The diocesan offices told congregations to do the same: secure their documents and historic valuables and follow local authorities' evacuation instructions.

All roads leading out of Houston became snarled with evacuees, some of whom had to abandon cars that had run out of gas. Carol Barnwell, diocesan communication director, reported that it took three-and-a-half hours to travel 26 miles. The usual four-hour drive to Dallas was more than 10 hours, Barnwell said.

The neighboring diocese of West Texas offered to house evacuees in the face of Rita's approach.

Forty-eight hours after Rita hit, Diocese of Western Louisiana Bishop Bruce MacPherson wrote to the diocese praising the "witness of Christian care and concern, and for the outpouring of support across the diocese as people from within the Diocese of Western Louisiana came north seeking a place to stay, and in their midst, Katrina evacuees that had begun to go home, found themselves returning to the many places of shelter being provided to those who came from the Dioceses of Louisiana and Mississippi."

"A major difference in our ability to care for all who came this time, was the fact that we ourselves had been struck and our infrastructure wounded," he wrote. "Power resources failed along with telephone systems across the affected areas, which were almost statewide now as a result of the two storms. This was further complicated by the failure of our water systems across the central part of the diocese, an area that has literally housed thousands of evacuees."

MacPherson spent two days trying to contact the diocese's clergy, and reported locating them all. "As I made contact with the last person this day, and having found him two states east of here, I stated I truly understood Jesus' parable about the lost coin, for he and his family were my lost coin," he wrote.

In Rita's aftermath, the Diocese of Texas began working with outreach coordinators around the diocese to get help to where it was needed. In one instance, Harrison drove in the middle of the night to meet the senior warden of a parish to deliver a check. They met at an abandoned gas station several miles outside of town since there was no way to drive into town.

Help came for individual parishes as well. For instance, St. Martin's Episcopal Church in suburban Houston raised more than $300,000 for hurricane relief in the days after Katrina and Rita, according to Sally Harvin, the parish's volunteer outreach coordinator.

The parish was immediately able to help ten families get back on their feet by helping them find work, pay bills and purchase cars. A number of parishioners "adopted" family members last Christmas and gave them gifts, Harvin said.

In the midst of St. Martin's initial work, a container of supplies arrived from the Seattle Supersonics and the WNBA Seattle Storm. The two professional basketball franchises had donated money and supplies, and coordinated donations from their fans. Harvin said she was never quite sure how the parish was chosen to receive one of the five containers the teams shipped to the Gulf Coast, but outreach volunteers put the supplies to good use. At one point, Harvin loaded up her SUV and headed to St. John's in Silsbee, in hard-hit southeast Texas, near Beaumont, where she dropped off cleaning supplies and other necessities.

All told, the parish was able to help 145 household consisting of about 400 people, she said.

While St. Martin's parishioners did much for the victims of Katrina and Rita, Harvin said they also had some experiences that will further the church's mission in the future. "We raised up a lot of new volunteers," she said. Those volunteers and the work they have done were recognized during worship services on September 17.

Some of those volunteers are now trained as case managers who are forming what the parish is calling the Community of Compassion.

"It has definitely made our members more sensitive to help in times of need," she said. "It's hard to say just where it's going, but it's still going."