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Kansas East Conference assists disaster relief work

By Shirley Edgerton
March 3, 2006

I retired from ministry in July, and my husband, Joe, is the Disaster Response Coordinator for the Kansas East Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. In September, Kansas East Disaster Response was asked by the Mississippi Conference to go to Bay St. Louis and set up a disaster recovery site.

We began taking teams from all over the country to help people in Hancock County, Mississippi, remove mud, toxic appliances, damaged and wet furnishings and whatever remained of their homes. A top priority at that time was clearing space for FEMA trailers. Teams also gutted existing homes and cleared mountains of debris.

The priority of UMCOR-trained (United Methodist Committee on Relief) church teams was to help people climb the mountain that Katrina had put in their path. Tasks included gutting their damaged homes, clearing 400-year-old trees in their yard, searching for small treasures buried in mounds of debris, or offering another ear to hear their story of loss and sadness.

The first five weeks we took in over 225 work requests and housed more than 400 team members from about 15 states, including back-to-back teams from Kansas East Conference. Volunteer hours from our site alone are now well over 20,000. At that time Kansas West Conference was operating a food trailer in Biloxi, serving around 1000 to 2000 meals a day. Many churches in Kansas have had teams or individuals return to Bay St. Louis on a regular basis.

Kansas East has continued to provide a site director since we came home in November, and each week the Main Street United Methodist Church in Bay St. Louis houses and coordinates teams from all states (maximum capacity is 50 volunteers), even people from England and Korea, to meet requests for help.

Denominations involved in organized disaster response in Hancock County include, among others, Lutheran, Catholic, Baptist, and Episcopalian. All denominations and many other faiths and non-believers have joined Kansas in our disaster response effort.

Our Kansas East staff coordinator, Julie Pohl, and Joe and I make regular trips to Bay St. Louis to help our site managers deal with the constantly evolving effort. Joe and I returned Saturday, Feb. 18th, after spending a week helping the work site move from disaster response orientation to disaster recovery. It is exciting to move with people from the hysteria and response of despair to the hope and decisions for organized recovery - granted, a recovery that will take several years.

While in Bay St. Louis this last week I attended a meeting of the Hancock County Long Term Recovery Committee with one of our site directors and another volunteer. Volunteer agencies may take on the appearance (and some of the paper-pushing) of bureaucratic agencies, but the heart and soul of recovery will be the benevolence of religious and other not-for-profit organizations.

Our Mississippi work site will now focus on recovery, although there is still much clean-up needed, and we are excited about working with many other agencies in this process for as long as it takes. Mississippi will eventually provide a salaried site director who will need the assistance of volunteer managers. Kansas East Conference has invested heart and soul in Hancock County, and teams are scheduled far into the future.

The "mountain" still appears impossible to climb at times and discouragement constantly knocks at the door, but those who travel to Bay St. Louis or other areas visited by brutal Katrina and Rita are now feeling hope. We have learned, I pray, that the most important factor in dealing with disaster and despair is not speed and organization, but compassion and justice.

Our conference will be scheduling teams for months and years and people are needed for every task from electrical wiring to cooking and answering phones.

Those interested in joining a team or providing team resources may contact Julie Pohl at kseastvim@yahoo.com.

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