By Woody Woodrick
Three down, 13 to go.
That could be one way of viewing the Hurricane Katrina recovery on the eve of the storm’s third anniversary.
United Methodist Committee on Relief estimates it will take 6,000 days to complete the recovery from the storm that slammed the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005. That’s slightly more than 16 years.
“We are three years into a 16 year recovery process. Seven thousand persons remain in temporary housing,” said the Rev. Bill McAlilly, superintendent of the Seashore District. “While we have made tremendous progress with the great help of the United Methodist Connection, we are still a long way from completing the work of recovery.”
Recovery efforts seem hung in a good news-bad news situation. Problems continue to arise, but slow, steady progress also continues. Bishop Hope Morgan Ward pointed to the dichotomy during a presentation at the Southeast Jurisdictional Conference held in July in North Carolina.
“People ask, how it is now on the Gulf Coast,” she said. “It depends on which way you look.
“You look one way and you see a home that has been rebuilt and a family that has been restored. You look the other way and you see a long stretch where everything has been bulldozed.”
Robert Sharp of Ocean Springs directs recovery efforts for the Mississippi Conference, and he, too, sees progress and work yet to do. “Recovery is moving ahead thanks to churches sending volunteers and money,” he said. “Of course it is slow to those still needing help, especially since it is three years out and some are not in homes at this time.
“As most, I wish we were further along since it deals with families waiting to get back in a home. But we have made good progress in helping those in need.”
Many issues facing the recovery give tension to the efforts. Problems have cropped up related to housing provided by the Federal Emergency Management Authority. Materials for rebuilding are more expensive. As the coast tries to rebuild, city officials, developers and citizens sometimes find themselves at odds over the best way to move forward. Housing in some price ranges are overbuilt, while others have too few. Some want to be able to live near where new businesses are being planned; others don’t want those developments near their homes.
“One of the greatest hindrances to people rebuilding is the inflated cost of property insurance,” McAlilly said. “This affects not only home owners but also our churches. This comes at a time when the economy is extremely fragile. I don’t believe the average Mississippian understands that we continue to have great challenges.”
McAlilly said the coast is seeing some population shifts. Some folks are moving away from hard-hit areas a bit farther inland.
“This creates a great challenge for some of our smaller congregations,” he said. “We continue to assess where God is leading us and likely have some difficult decisions ahead of us in regard to the future of some churches.
“On the positive side of the equation, we are seeing growth in many of our churches north of I-10 due to relocation. That said, we are seeing some people who have been away begin to return. Many of our churches are experiencing new growth.”
Among United Methodist churches damaged in the storm, only two have not been rebuilt – Leggett Memorial UMC, which was located on Gulf-front property in Biloxi and Seashore Mission, also in Biloxi.
“Leggett continues to remain stable, and in many ways, has found strength and new purpose as they have engaged mission teams who have come to help us rebuild,” McAlilly said. “The Seashore Mission is redefining its purpose and is redirecting its ministry to the homeless by diversifying their efforts across the coast.
“Also, Seashore Mission is creating partnerships with ministries who are already engaging the homeless. (The) Rev. Tom East is the part time executive director leading this effort. We are leasing a facility in Gulfport which will house a food pantry and clothes closet as a beginning point. New ministries will be added as the mission gains strength.”
As slowly as structures are rebuilt, so also are the psyches of those who lived through the storm. McAlilly said signs of stress are common, especially at this time of year at the height of hurricane season.
“Many are tired of talking about Katrina and don’t want to be reminded, though it continues to come up in conversations in a variety of ways,” McAlilly said.
“Place is extremely important to people,” McAlilly said. “When a home is lost and a church is destroyed, a sense of rootlessness sets in. As our churches have rebuilt, and homes have been restored, people begin to feel a sense of becoming whole again. There remains, however, an ongoing sense of weariness.
“Prayer has become the center piece of our worshiping congregations. Many of our pastors who were serving at the time Katrina hit have relocated and are serving congregations in other areas of the conference. These congregations have a unique opportunity to minister to these pastoral families with a deep sense of compassion and support.”
So the work goes on, and as progress is made new needs arise. Two, however, haven’t changed. The conference’s recovery efforts still need financial gifts and volunteers.
“We are trying to talk larger churches and smaller churches to group together and commit to a new (home) build. Our volunteers are still coming, thank God,” Sharp said.
“We need continued prayerful support,” McAlilly said. “We need every church in the Mississippi Conference to send a work team. We need every congregation in Mississippi to receive the third anniversary Bishop’s Appeal Offering for Church Recovery.”