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A year after Katrina: Baptists nurturing hope along Gulf Coast

GULFPORT, Miss. (BP)–One year after Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma devastated the Louisiana and Mississippi Gulf Coast region, Southern Baptist Disaster Relief leaders are looking back at the remarkable ministry already accomplished — and settling in for the daunting task still ahead.

More than 60,000 homes and 160 churches were damaged or destroyed along the Mississippi coast. Countless people were left homeless in New Orleans. Southern Baptists rolled in just hours after Hurricane Katrina hit bringing with them a convoy of relief — and an eternal hope rising above earthly circumstances.

In all, Southern Baptist volunteers from 41 state conventions prepared more than 14 million hot meals, completed 16,973 cleanup and recovery jobs, provided 103,556 hot showers, cleaned 25,826 loads of laundry, cared for 7,817 children and purified 21,595 gallons of water.

Through the efforts of Southern Baptist Disaster Relief and other agencies, God is bringing brighter days to the Gulf Coast.

“We never envisioned anything could impact our coast that much,” said Jim Didlake, director of disaster relief operations for Mississippi Southern Baptists, who also noted an unprecedented impact of another kind: “We already are seeing God use this to open doors and reach people in ways we would have never dreamed possible.”

To date, Southern Baptist Disaster Relief has involved more than 15,000 volunteers in relief and recovery efforts that have now transitioned into a massive rebuilding campaign.

More than 3,000 homes are being rebuilt in Mississippi through the financial support of the North American Mission Board and several state Baptist conventions. Through Operation NOAH (New Orleans Area Hope) Rebuild, Southern Baptists will make a thousand homes livable again and restore a number of churches in the New Orleans area. And people are coming to Christ who might never have come to church.

“We see so many of them saying, ‘At the time of our greatest need this church reached out and we want to invest into this with our lives,'” Didlake recounted.

“I’ve been a Southern Baptist all my life, but this was Southern Baptists at their best,” he added. “If you have any doubts about the Cooperative Program, just look at what’s going on.”

Ministry opportunities have opened up after disasters such as Katrina because Southern Baptists have made the most of each situation, said Jim Burton, NAMB’s director of volunteer mobilization. Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, though 39 years in existence, was seen in a new light through Katrina’s onslaught.

“[P]eople are looking to us and counting on us. I’ve heard this from Homeland Security, the American Red Cross and others,” Burton said. “It’s an issue of stewardship. When God gives you a call upon your life, you want to be a good steward of that opportunity so God will unfold other opportunities.”

Tobey Pitman, project coordinator for Operation NOAH Rebuild, sees unfolding opportunities in New Orleans that will have a physical as well as spiritual impact on the city for years to come.

At each rebuild site, volunteers prayerwalk the area. Chaplains join local pastors in ministering to residents, and churches are crossing denominational lines to help each other meet needs in the city.

“People I talk to today still say you can tell a difference in the city,” Pitman said. “Our people have been able to meet and walk with the hurting people in New Orleans trying to meet needs. The churches that are still standing have been amazing. This has opened up new avenues of ministry that I don’t think they’ve dreamed of.”

The need grows for volunteers in New Orleans and Mississippi as the rebuild continues. Both areas have developed the infrastructure to support incoming volunteers, and coordinators anticipate the rebuild to continue for several years. The biggest needs now are workers skilled in electrical and plumbing, but “unskilled workers with lots of energy and enthusiasm are always welcome,” Pitman said.

For Burton, last year’s Gulf Coast storms were one more shining example of how God has used partnerships among Southern Baptists to accomplish remarkable things.

“Other organizations have said to me, ‘Man, I wish I could get that many volunteers with a few phone calls.’ We can do that because our state Baptist conventions have created an incredible network of volunteers.”
To learn more about rebuild efforts, visit www.operationnoah.net. To listen to a series of special radio programs on the topic, visit www.strengthforliving.net.

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  • Adam Miller