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Hurricane Gustav evacuees find Baptists waiting to help

SHREVEPORT, La. (BP)–The families arrived with three days of clothes and little else. In the car seats you see what is valuable to them: a painting of a dog, a hand-stitched doll. Quite a few spent most of their money on evacuating and many come from the same parishes ripped up by Hurricane Katrina three years ago.

But instead of grief and anger, there’s frustration and some healthy doses of gratitude as Hurricane Gustav evacuees fill places such as the Shreveport Fairgrounds — a campus utilized by the American Red Cross and now, at dinnertime, filled with restless families carrying Styrofoam containers of red beans and sausage, corn and fruit.

“I’m just so grateful,” New Orleans resident Longelle Pierre said, eating a meal prepared 10 miles away at Willowpoint Baptist Church by a Tennessee Baptist disaster relief feeding unit from Shiloh Baptist Association. Her 8-year-old daughter held up a black-haired doll named Rosie. “We’ve had food here. Our pets have been cared for. We feel safe,” Pierre added.

Though separated from their homes by hundreds of miles, the key point is that most evacuees have homes to return to.

“Our job is different than it was with Katrina,” said Roger Stacy, a disaster relief chaplain and director of missions for Tennessee’s Gibson Baptist Association. “People here are just frustrated. Some say their employers want them back at work, but the roadways aren’t clear yet.”

“Our job is just to be a presence,” said fellow chaplain Thomas Lusk, pastor of Bethel Hill Baptist Church in McMinnville, Tenn. Lusk and Stacy set up a table yesterday in the coliseum to visit with evacuees.

“We’re trying to defuse peoples’ frustrations,” and to help wherever needed, Lusk said. “A thousand scoops of green beans yesterday,” he added, gripping his shoulder like it was sore and laughing.

The fairgrounds shelter was one of at least a half-dozen in the Shreveport area. The shelters’ cots, open spaces and bareness may not be ideal, but seeing the elderly and immobile in air-conditioned, safe surroundings provides a brighter picture of how hurricane-affected residents may fare with future storms.

And the new government-designed evacuation policies and plans improve how Southern Baptist disaster relief units are able to respond in the Gulf region — especially when it comes to lead-time and other logistical considerations.

Tennessee volunteer Cynthia Benefield was trained only days before Katrina struck. As other Tennessee volunteers load supplies into the temporary warehouse at Willowpoint, she describes a barren scene three years ago as her initiation into disaster relief.

“Katrina was my first assignment,” she said. “I remember sleeping on a sidewalk in Mississippi because there was no place to stay. We slept on a sidewalk for three days.”

This time, she and her husband Lanny are sleeping in the church, where until yesterday 13 evacuated families were housed as well.

Members of Summertown Baptist Church, the Benefields retired shortly before Katrina and said “God, use us.”

“Now anytime a storm hits or a disaster hits, if I’m not out there helping I feel like something is really wrong,” Cynthia said. “Because that’s what I’m supposed to be doing. Not everyone is called to this. Either you’re called to this or you’re not. We know this is what we’re supposed to be doing.”

Phil Van Dixon, one of the feeding unit’s leaders, said that after Katrina he and his wife Aline decided to sell their house and spend time in a motor home near the Gulf. In the three-year lull between Katrina and now, the Mission Service Corps couple bought a home in Tennessee again.

“But we won’t be going back home anytime soon,” Van Dixon said, forecasting a move south as disaster relief units concentrate efforts near affected areas around Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

As residents slowly return home in coming days and weeks, disaster relief units will move into position to assist residents and communities through recovery.

There are now 127 Southern Baptist disaster relief units serving at 54 sites in response to Hurricane Gustav. Most efforts are concentrated in Louisiana and Mississippi. Evacuee shelters where volunteers are serving in Texas, Arkansas, Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky are expected to begin shutting down Thursday and Friday.

Disaster relief officials also are keeping a close eye on Tropical Storm Hanna and Hurricane Ike. Hanna is expected to make landfall on the North Carolina coast at hurricane strength sometime Saturday and batter the East Coast through Monday. Ike, a powerful Category 4 storm, is expected to continue trekking west through the Atlantic until taking a northward turn toward the Bahamas on Monday. That storm could be threatening Florida by Tuesday, Sept. 9.
Adam Miller is associate editor of On Mission magazine (www.onmission.com) at the North American Mission Board. To make a donation to Southern Baptist disaster relief efforts, visit www.namb.net and click on “donate now” or call toll-free 1-866-407-6262.

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  • Adam Miller