By Woody Woodrick
Some of the wind that blew through Mississippi recently didn’t come in from the Gulf of Mexico.
Some of it was the exhalation of breaths being held as hurricanes Gustav and Ike slipped past Mississippi and crashed ashore farther west.
While Mississippi did sustain some damage from the storms, it was not as bad as it could have been. The biggest impact came from Hurricane Gustav, which made landfall Sept. 8. The storm pushed gulf water into low-lying areas along the coast and fed rains that caused flash flooding inland.
Although relieved to have been spared the brunt of the storms, United Methodists in the Mississippi Conference have been eager to help those hit hard in Louisiana and Texas. Louisiana took most of the force of Gustav and also sustained heavy damage from Ike, which made landfall Sept. 13.
The areas in Mississippi hardest hit by Gustav were the western edge of the Gulf Coast, Southwest Mississippi and the Greenville area.
“We are seeing damage from Gustav in three primary areas: The coast, especially the western part; southwest Mississippi including Adams, Amite and Wilkinson counties, and Washington County,” said the Rev. C.J. Caufield of Kosciusko, coordinator of disaster response for the Mississippi Conference. “Greenville has some pretty substantial flooding affecting many homes. We have distributed approximately 750 flood buckets, 300 of which came from our generous neighbors in the North Alabama Conference. Assessment continues for possible team deployment.”
When evacuation orders went out along the coast, United Methodist churches and facilities opened their doors for those fleeing the storms. Hazlehurst UMC, Crossgates UMC in Brandon, Madison UMC and Hawkins UMC in Vicksburg served as shelters. In addition, Camp Wesley Pines and Conference Center in Gallman was filled to capacity with evacuees. In fact, as some evacuees left the camp when Gustav subsided, they made reservations for Ike, which was already looming.
The brunt of Gustav hit the Baton Rouge area, and most of the counties affected in Mississippi are not far from the Louisiana capital. Most of the damage in Southwest Mississippi involved downed trees and power lines. The parsonage of the Rev. Ronnie Smith, pastor at Washington and Church Hill UMCs just outside Natchez, lost about 100 shingles, which allowed water to leak into a bedroom.
Farther north and two days after landfall, Gustav dumped rain on the Delta causing flash flooding.
“The night that it hit us we were out at the convention center feeding supper (to evacuees),” said the Rev. Brad Hodges, pastor of Greenville First UMC. “When we got through and started home, I don’t think there was a street in Greenville without water on it.”
Reports indicated Greenville Revels UMC and its parsonage sustained some water damage, but details were not available.
Hodges said as quickly as the water rose, it was mostly gone by the next day. The damage was done, however. Hodges said while many homes were affected, most only got a few inches of water inside. The result of was piles and piles of ruined carpet along the streets and some homes needed new sheetrock.
“We got flood buckets from Trinity UMC (in Greenville) and carried them to the convention center,” Hodges said. “I don’t know how word got out, but they disappeared quickly. We got some more from Alabama.”
Along the Gulf Coast, the storms caused heightened anxiety in an area still trying to recover from Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“Our 8-year-old has been having some issues that go back to Katrina,” said the Rev. Terry Hilliard, pastor at Pass Christian UMC. “I evacuated with the children because of her. She was worried about her daddy (the Rev. Larry Hilliard, who remained in Gulfport).”
Despite less than anticipated damage, Hilliard said, “We didn’t dodge a bullet.”
The Rev. Rose Mary Williams of DeLisle UMC said the stress also showed among her congregation. “With the older people, it was very stressful. The anticipation and anxiety, especially having to load back up and evacuate, was hard,” she said. “We tried to do things to keep them uplifted.”
The close calls were not without benefit, however. Caufield said the conference activated its disaster response plan, found some holes and got those filled.
“Our tagline is ‘preparedness, response, recovery,’” said Caufield, who serves as disaster coordinator on a volunteer basis, “regardless of where we are in the disaster cycle, we must always be preparing. It helps us to become more efficient so more of our affected neighbors receive assistance more quickly.
“Although all disasters are different, we were well prepared. There is always room for improvement. The disaster response committee will be gathering at the end of this month for an evaluation and revision to our process in the future. Gustav gave us a chance to do a 'dry run’ or a 'wet run' of our new plan with many new volunteers in place.”
In addition to reviewing response plans for the conference, volunteers in Mississippi will be providing aid to Louisiana and Texas. Caufield said churches can help in several ways:
• Prepare and collect flood buckets. “We are in dire need. We are also trying to identify a district point of collection in every district from which we will collect the buckets a few times per year and transport to our storage facility in Louisiana,” Caufield said.
• Consider unique avenues of ministry that can be incorporated in the disaster relief ministry and share them with the conference.
• Stay in contact with district disaster relief coordinators. The complete list will be available soon on the conference Web site (www.mississippi-umc.org).
• Share your stories and pictures with the conference leadership.