Response Center builds unity amid disaster chaos


By Woody Woodrick

Advocate Editor

Overcoming the chaos created by a widespread disaster takes steady perseverance. For nearly two years, the Rev. Chris Bowers has helped bring unity and continuity to The United Methodist Church’s response to Hurricane Katrina.


Bowers has operated the Disaster Response Center in Meridian since it was organized in September 2005.


“The most important thing the center has been able to do is unify the response,” Bowers said. “There was a lot of difference from how one (volunteer) camp worked to another. Each camp had a view of how things were going that was distinct from the others. The response center pulled everything together.”


Beginning Sept. 1, Bowers will become associate pastor at Hattiesburg Main Street UMC.

Bowers’ departure will come just a few days after the second anniversary of the storm on Aug. 29. The Seashore District has scheduled three prayer services for that day. Services are planned in Hancock, Harrison and Jackson counties (see schedule below). The public is encouraged to attend the service nearest their community.


“What more appropriate expression of our life together than a time set apart to pray with thanksgiving for all that we have experienced since Aug. 29, 2005,” said the Rev. Bill McAlilly, superintendent of the Seashore District. “As United Methodist Christians deeply engaged in the work of recovery along side fellow Christians, our prayer this day is to be a sign of hope and promise.”


The services will be brief, offering a time of song, prayer and reflection. Bishop Hope Morgan Ward will be on the coast to offer words of encouragement at each gathering.


Over the next several months, the call center will relocate from Meridian to the Gulf Coast. The move is part of the gradual reduction of resources the response team has known is coming. Robert Sharp of Ocean Springs, Mississippi United Methodist Katrina Response director, said funding will start to drop off in April. “We will be reducing structure. With the lessons we’ve learned in operations and procedures, I think we have a good handle on how to do this.”


United Methodist Committee on Relief has provided $7.4 million in funding for the Mississippi response since Katrina, with another $2 million committed over the next two quarters and another $2 million expected for the following year.


Sharp pointed out three successes in the second year of the response effort. He said case managers have worked with families to find out their most pressing needs so they can get the help they need.


In addition, building warehouses has saved 50 percent on construction costs by allowing items to be purchased in bulk and stored. Volunteers have saved countless dollars in labor costs.


The work continues. “We’re still full bore,” said Sharp. “We have 34,000 people still in FEMA trailers as the two-year anniversary approaches. Some of those are going to be a slow process to get back in homes.”


Bowers said he’s pleased with the number of volunteers who continue to come to Mississippi and help with the rebuilding. “I’m surprised at this point we still have so many people coming. We’re still pretty much packed in at our camps through the end of the year, and January, February and even March are filling up,” Bowers said.


He pointed out that many of the more than 40,000 volunteers who have scheduled trips through the center are making their second, third, fourth or even fifth trips to Mississippi.

Bowers said the work has begun to shift from repairing homes to completely rebuilding homes. That has meant the United Methodist Katrina Response team has begun working even more with other organizations. “Working with the other organizations is really awesome, I think,” Bowers said.


Hired to coordinate volunteer activity, Bowers admits the job was more complicated than he thought.


“My job description was to run this office and schedule where team leaders would go,” he said. “That sounds simple, but it’s really not when you’re working with so many churches and organizations. I came on board with the idea of scheduling teams. In the end my job included purchasing buildings materials, paying bills and all sorts of things I never thought I would have to do.”


As he prepares to move into more traditional ministry, Bowers said he’s learned a lot from his experience.


“I really think that a lot of what I’ve done over the last couple of years has been communicating, teaching and explaining to people around the country what we’re doing,” he said.


“The church at the general and conference levels in a lot of ways reflects the church at the local level. I had to learn to communicate with thousands of personalities. Hopefully I’ve become a better communicator and understand people better.”



Prayer Services

Three services are scheduled Aug. 29 to commemorate the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. They include:

Gulfside Assembly, Waveland

12 p.m., Seashore United Methodist Assembly


2 p.m., St. Paul United Methodist Church, East Campus

Ocean Springs

At Mississippi 57 and U.S. 90

For more information call the Seashore District office at (228) 604-2300.