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KATRINA 2005-15: Hurricane was ‘defining moment’

[SLIDESHOW=40932,40933]RALEIGH, N.C. (BP) — Hurricane Katrina was a “defining moment” for North Carolina Baptist Men, the missions organization’s leader remembers.

“It was amazing that that many people would give up so much time … and there were people who made 20-30 trips who drove every time,” Richard Brunson, NCBM executive director, said. “They were taking people with them. It was just amazing … even our on-site coordinators. Some of them quit jobs and went down there and worked.”

Before Katrina even made landfall on Aug. 29, 2005, more than 80 NCBM volunteers with a convoy of supplies gathered in Meridian, Miss., until it was clear to approach the hard-hit areas.

Within a week, North Carolina volunteers were serving in at least three cities in Mississippi and a town in Alabama. They started with feeding, laundry, water purification and mudout units. Thousands of volunteers poured in from North Carolina and other states.

“Because we got there early, the town, the citizens, the mayor … trusted us a lot,” Brunson said. When NCBM was asked to coordinate efforts in Gulfport, Miss., “it was one of those defining moments,” he said. “And I think the Lord allowed us to be at a place where there was great need with some really great volunteers who were on-site coordinators.”

Katrina was among the five deadliest hurricanes in U.S. history, with at least 1,833 people dying in the hurricane and subsequent flooding.

NCBM was given the use of an old armory which, with the addition of several bunk trailers, allowed the ministry to host 300 volunteers. Local schools and churches offered more housing for the volunteer influx.

“That was a great opportunity for a really strong Christian witness and for God to get the glory for compassion, for service and for volunteers investing their time and money and resources,” Brunson said.

NCBM maintained three on-site coordinators (couples) in the early days of Katrina who made “huge sacrifices” to be there, Brunson said.

Early on, NCBM also sent a medical/dental bus to assess the health of evacuees who had been brought to Raleigh. A medical/dental team also worked with evacuees in Charlotte.

The unit based in Meridian moved on to Lafayette, La., on Sept. 26, when Hurricane Rita struck the Gulf Coast, not even a month after Hurricane Katrina left a wide path of devastation.

After food, water and building supplies initially had to be hauled in from out of state, NCBM purchased two tanker units to carry some 5,000 gallons of water. Each night a driver would take a tanker to a military base in Pensacola, Fla., fill up with water and bring it back to Gulfport to assist with food preparation, showers, laundry and to give to residents.

“Some of our equipment that we still use we purchased there out of necessity” for Katrina, Brunson said.

Around 30,000 volunteers from all 50 states and six countries helped with Katrina recovery efforts during the next two and a half years.

The yellow hats and shirts that Southern Baptist Disaster Relief workers wear attracted thanks from people on the street. Physically and spiritually, volunteers made an impact.

“If you had on a yellow shirt, people would thank [you],” Brunson said. “People paid for meals at restaurants” for the volunteers.

“There was something about Katrina,” he said. “It was on the news so much. There were a lot of heartbreaking stories.”

Volunteers would make the trip down to the Gulf Coast and come back telling stories of what they had seen. Then they would return with other volunteers.

During the partnership in Gulfport, NCBM helped with more than 700 houses in the Gulfport area before its work concluded in 2008.

Ceremonies on Jan. 12-13 of that year commemorated North Carolina Baptists and their efforts.

A Jan. 19, 2008, story in North Carolina Baptists’ Biblical Recorder newspaper quoted Brunson from an event at the armory where thousands of volunteers were based during recovery efforts: “Thank you for making us from North Carolina feel like your brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, your sons and daughters.”

Volunteers were recognized at Gulfport’s First Baptist Church where Chuck Register was pastor. Register is now the executive leader of church planting and missions partnerships for the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina (BSC).

Another service was hosted by the city of Gulfport, also held at First Baptist. The Gulfport City Council proclaimed Jan. 13 as “North Carolina Baptist Men Appreciation Day.” Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour announced a similar decree.

“Our lives are richer and will never be the same,” Milton A. Hollifield Jr., BSC executive director-treasurer, said at the time.

“We learned a lot”

The situation caused NCBM to jump-start its childcare ministry as well as expand its feeding capacity. Sleeper units were new to NCBM for Katrina. Since then, they have been used at other disaster sites.

“We learned a lot about being there long-term,” including the importance of on-site coordinators, Brunson said. “If you can provide housing, meals, logistics, you can make it possible for a lot more people to get involved in missions.”

NCBM’s two mission camp facilities — Red Springs and Shelby — came directly out of what the ministry learned through Katrina. And Red Springs was the recipient of the kitchen used at the Gulfport armory as well as beds, mattresses, folding chairs and many of the tools bought or donated during the Katrina recovery efforts.

“Every disaster is different,” Brunson said, noting that NCBM leaders realized they could recreate some of the logistics at the facilities to offer ongoing opportunities for volunteers.

“We realized these people who are driving from North Carolina have big hearts and have all kinds of skills and are making a difference in people’s lives,” he said. “If we can get them to continue … let’s provide opportunities anytime they want to go to impact people physically and spiritually.”

In addition to its mission camp locations, NCBM offers training opportunities in the spring in various parts of the state so people can get certified for various ministries.

Currently, NCBM is in a long-term partnership in New Jersey involving Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts.

“Sandy wasn’t on the news nearly as much as Katrina,” Brunson said. There is an ongoing need for volunteers there as well as at other sites. Brunson credits Katrina with NCBM’s willingness to commit to more long-term projects like Sandy.

NCBM receives funding through the North Carolina Missions Offering (ncmissionsoffering.org), which also supports church planting, associational projects, mission camps and mobilization ministry projects. NCBM also benefits from gifts made directly to the ministry at baptistsonmission.org.