Y2K ... Rebuilding faces Year 2 of Katrina


By Woody Woodrick
Advocate Editor

A drive along U.S. 90 illustrates the varying stages of the Mississippi Gulf Coast’s recovery from Hurricane Katrina. 

Along some blocks of the beach highway, new buildings are going up, their frames being pounded together by busy work crews. Next door sits an empty lot with grass growing tall and a “For Sale” sign standing in front. Farther along, another lot is completely barren; no trees, no grass, no building. Yet another seems hardly disturbed since the storm hit 53 weeks ago. 

Progress has been made, but it’s a long, slow process. 

“It was so massive that we’ve done a lot, but we have a long way to go,” said Ed Blakeslee, coordinator for the Mississippi United Methodist Katrina Response team.

Blakeslee called the process “frustratingly slow.” However, he said the recovery wouldn’t be where it is without the generosity of United Methodists. 

“We can feel real good from a Methodist stand point,” he said. “We’ve had help from churches and people from all over the country. It would not have happened without everyone working as a team including United Methodist Committee on Relief, United Methodist Volunteers in Mission and individual church groups.” 

Volunteers and gifts

As much as those groups have done, Blakeslee said the job is far from over. He’s concerned that as the weeks and months pass, the number of volunteers will dwindle. 

“My biggest concern is to continue to get volunteers, particularly volunteers with construction skills,” he said. “Keeping volunteers coming over the next couple of years will be an issue as the story becomes old news or a hurricane strikes another part of the U.S. We’re just a year away from the storm, but continuing to have volunteers will be an issue.” 

As homes are repaired, volunteers with electrical, carpentry, plumbing and heating and air conditioning skills will be needed. 

So far, an impressive number of volunteers has come to the area’s aid.  “We know we’ve had in excess of 25,000 volunteers going through our center,” said Chris Bowers, who directs the UM Disaster Response Center in Meridian.

The actual number of volunteers is likely much higher. UM work teams are requested, but not required, to register with the center. Many have contacted churches directly for work assignments. 

In addition, funds have poured in. Figures compiled by The Clarion-Ledger newspaper show that United Methodist Committee on Relief ranks sixth among non-profit groups that have raised money for Katrina victims. UMCOR has raised $62 million. Among faith organizations, UMCOR ranks third behind the Salvation Army ($362 million) and Catholic Charities ($154.5 million). 

However, even those funds are being depleted. Blakeslee said the Katrina Response team has an immediate need for about $500,000 to finish multi-purpose buildings that will house volunteers and provide storage for materials and equipment long term.  

The conference has received two modular buildings to house volunteers. These are located at Waveland and Ocean Springs. The Waveland facility will house about 50 volunteers in its 5,000 square feet, while the second can house 100 volunteers in 8,000 square feet. The first multi-purpose building is under construction in Vancleave, and construction on a building at Nugent UMC in north Gulfport will begin as soon as permits are secured. Sites are being considered for another facility in Hancock County. Blakeslee said each 10,000-square-foot building costs about $300,000.  

“The price of everything down here has gone up 40 percent to 50 percent,” Blakeslee said. “I think as we move forward and as reconstruction starts in New Orleans, that will put more pressure on construction down here. Trying to find someone to get construction done and people to do work on your home is hard, and you just about have to accept what the price is.” 

Blakeslee said the United Methodist connection will continue to be vital in the recovery. “We can’t do it without their help,” he said. “Obviously, we’re going to need their help to complete these buildings. Whatever contribution we get from churches will help us stay in recovery.  

“All volunteers that come we ask for donations for (their) housing. As far as dollars for building materials, the connection allows us to stay in the recovery effort much longer. We’ll probably run out of funds before we run out of need.” 

Repairing churches

The condition of damaged churches also varies. Some churches wiped out by the storm are rebuilding, while others still have nothing but a slab. Some churches have standing buildings that have sustained great damage, leaving the congregations to make difficult decisions about their futures. 

“For the most part, churches that were damaged are 80 percent to 85 percent back to being as good as or better than before,” said the Rev. Chris Cumbest, who is coordinating church recovery. 

Seven churches were considered heavily damaged or destroyed. They include:

  • Leggett Memorial in Biloxi – The church sat directly facing the Gulf of Mexico. Only one wall of the sanctuary remained standing after the storm. It’s now just a slab.
  • Pearlington UMC – The church doesn’t even have a slab left.
  • St. Rock UMC in Waveland – The congregation meets in a temporary building, but church leaders are making plans to rebuild.
  • Clermont Harbor – A group from North Carolina replaced the destroyed building with a new building in just eight days this summer.
  • Mississippi City in Gulfport – The church has been working with an architect to restore its building.
  • Seashore Mission – The Biloxi church ministered primarily to homeless people. Of 12 people who sought shelter at the church during the storm, six died. The building is gone.
  • Pascagoula First UMC – New building codes required by the city have the church trying to decide its course of action. 
Spiritual recovery

In addition to physical damage, Katrina left emotional and spiritual damage. Cumbest and Blakeslee said they see signs of the strain after a year. 

“I think people are tired and stressed out,” Blakeslee said. “It’s tough being down here on a daily basis. Even more so for those who don’t have a home. After a year of living in a FEMA trailer or with relatives, there’s got to be a tremendous need for spiritual and emotional care. It’s difficult not to get down in the dumps about where you are.” 

Cumbest said the Aug. 29 anniversary of the storm brought mixed emotions. 

“For the most part, churches are on a spiritual high,” he said. “The anniversary brings along a lot of issues and depression among folks. Churches feel that as well. At the same time it brings messages of hope that overcome that sense of despair.” 

Blakeslee said the people he works with, both on his team and those the team helps, keep his spirits up. 

“I just think the goodness of the people in the Methodist church keep my spirits up,” he said. “As Stephen Covey would say, ‘they make significant deposits into my emotional bank account.’ It’s just people helping people.”