Are you ready?

7/18/2006

By Woody Woodrick
Advocate Editor

On Aug. 28, few folks in Hattiesburg would have worried about being prepared for a hurricane. 

That changed on Aug. 29 when Hurricane Katrina slammed into Mississippi, spreading destruction literally the length of the state. Katrina-pushed winds downed trees and damaged roofs all over Hattiesburg. Power was out for days, even weeks in some areas. Phone lines were often out of service. 

Court Street United Methodist Church member Rink Russell realized folks in the area needed to be better prepared for the next disaster. “(Russell) said we needed to come up with a strategy so that we could be ready to go into the response mode,” said the Rev. Bruce Case, pastor at Court Street. 

Russell’s sentiment is shared by Mississippi Conference leadership. Bishop Hope Morgan Ward and those leading the United Methodist Katrina response encourage every church in Mississippi to develop a plan for responding to disasters. At Annual Conference, Ward presented a list of 10 questions for each church to answer about disaster preparation. 

“We know that each local church has unique wisdom, unique needs and unique gifts,” Ward said. “Each church has the capacity to create a plan that will care for the congregation while reaching out to those impacted in the community and beyond.” 

The first question asks how a church will contact its members following a disaster. Many churches and communities in South Mississippi lost communications in Katrina’s aftermath and had a hard time locating members to find out how they fared in the storm. 

“The wisdom shared on every airplane flight applies: In the event of emergency, put on your oxygen mask first. The first step is to care for the congregation so that the congregation will be strengthened to be light in the world, through the grace of Jesus Christ,” Ward said. 

That’s the centerpiece of Court Street’s plan. 

“We think we are in a lot better shape in case an emergency happens,” Case said. “It’s a quicker way to track people. Our shepherds are expected to drive to homes to check on people if the phones aren’t working.” 

Shepherds are volunteers who are responsible for the Court Street members in a geographic area. 

Case said the church sent out questionnaires to each member asking for emergency contact information and for information about skills and resources they could offer in a disaster. The church then plotted the location of every church family on a map and divided the families into groups of eight to 10 with a shepherd responsible for each group. 

“I think people appreciate it,” Case said. “It’s still a work in progress. We’ve gotten a lot of good information about emergencies to people.” 

Case said Russell addresses the congregation about once a month, offering tips on personal disaster preparation such as making sure flashlights with working batteries are available or reminding folks to have other supplies gathered in advance. 

Court Street began its program in April. In May, Ward met with disaster response coordinators from each of the conference’s 11 districts and other leaders to push preparation. She expressed at that meeting that in addition to taking care of its own members, each church can do something to help affected communities. She said the aid can range from providing temporary housing to preparing flood buckets to training response teams. 

St. Matthew’s UMC in Madison chose the latter option following Katrina. United Methodist Volunteers in Mission personnel came to St. Matthew’s to lead an early responder training session. The Rev. Rayford Woodrick, who helped put together the training, said church members who went on work missions shortly after the hurricane came back with a desire to be better trained and more effective in helping. 

“They had gotten to the Pascagoula area early enough that they were mucking out mud and pulling down Sheetrock,” Woodrick said. “They talked about doing that early kind of work that people need to have done. 

“(The volunteers) wanted certification to get in early. When you are certified you are notified that you might be needed. The volunteers wanted to know some of the critical factors such as safety – how to keep a team safe – and the process of finding out where the needs are.” 

Thirty-two members at St. Matthew’s completed the training, Woodrick said. The church has also purchased a trailer and equipped it with tools needed by early responders. 

The Rev. Steve Casteel, Connectional Ministries director, said the conference plans to offer additional early response team training events. 

Ed Blakeslee, who is coordinating Katrina recovery for the conference, also encouraged each church to develop a disaster plan and to share those plans with the district and conference. 

“What I would like to see is that the conference has a plan, the district has a plan and each local church has a plan, and that all of these plans are integrated so that we know ahead of time how we are going to use the three multipurpose buildings (under construction on the Gulf Coast) and what role each church will play,” he said. “Some churches might be distribution centers; churches with showers might house teams, etc.” 

Those involved said the blessings of a disaster plan run both directions. Woodrick said volunteers from St. Matthew’s have many stories of how they were able to assure those in affected areas that the church cares for them and wants to help.

Case said Court Street has learned that no church is too small to play a role in disaster response. While the plan has not had to be activated, he said the church already benefits. 

“It is empowering for us. People are confident, won’t feel like victims and that we can be healers and bring the community together because we have our act together,” Case said. “This is going to inject more confidence into our church. We see any kind of crisis is not a time to cower and feel sorry for ourselves. We can be a bright light in Hattiesburg. We have confidence that God can use us to do great things in difficult times.” 

“Preparing for disaster is an act of faith,” Ward said. “Preparing for disaster demonstrates that we believe God to be greater than anything that can happen and God's people are to be the means for comfort and care in time of