Sabine Pass Begins Clean Up with a “Heavy Heart”
By Susan J. Meister*
September 24, 2008—"You know, we accept this possibility as part of living here," sighed Adam Saunders, lay leader of the Sabine Pass UMC, as he led a tour of the town, devastated by the storm surge of Hurricane Ike. "But we accept it with tears and a heavy heart."
Sabine Pass, located on the Gulf Coast about 45 miles northeast of Galveston and just west of the Louisiana border, was in the devastating northeast quadrant of Hurricane Ike, which made landfall nearby on September 13 with a 13-foot storm surge. Every structure in the community of about 500 persons that was not elevated (raised) was severely damaged, destroyed, or washed away.
Hurricane Rita came ashore here three years ago on September 24. Pastor Kitty Key recalls that in the past three years, "Many good United Methodists have come here to work. We've had many good teams. The volunteers love this community and we love them."
"And now we need colored t-shirts here!" she said. "We need them to come so our people don't feel forgotten."
Key is referring to the brightly colored shirts worn by UMCOR-trained Early Response Teams (ERTs)—self-contained groups who go into a community early to help clean up after a disaster. Cynthia Harvey, in the mission office of the Texas Conference, reports that several teams have indicated their willingness to work by registering on the conference web site. Harvey will connect them with the clean-up needs in Sabine Pass and elsewhere throughout the conference.
After Rita, Key and the Sabine Pass congregation quickly got the church and fellowship hall into shape to host teams and reach out to the community. Since November 2005, the church has hosted an evening meal, "Soul Food Café," in the fellowship hall. Teams stayed there and in a building across the street. The church also hosted the First Baptist Church (whose building was destroyed by Rita) until recently when the Baptist congregation completed a new, raised building behind the United Methodist Church.
"When the pastor from First Baptist worshipped with us last Sunday (Sept. 21) in the parsonage, he remembered his promise that 'we're all in this together,'" smiled Saunders. "He just didn't think he would have to honor that promise so quickly!" Key said that the Sabine Pass congregation will likely use the First Baptist building for worship for the short term.
The church, fellowship hall and parsonage are lined up just off the main street in the town, which is officially part of the city of Port Arthur. Hurricane Ike blew out the back walls of the church and fellowship hall and devastated the parsonage. A new parsonage, visible from the rear of the church, is nearly completed. It has been a joint project of the Texas Conference and Volunteer in Mission (UMVIM) teams.
"We simply don't know where our pews are," Saunders said. Except for the pew in the chancel area, all the rest somehow floated out the front door. Saunders thinks that the church and fellowship hall can be salvaged, but it will be critical to start cleaning up right away.
Key is pastor at both Sabine Pass UMC and St. John's UMC in Port Arthur. St. John's has also hosted numerous volunteer teams and staff for Rita Recovery, an UMCOR partner. It's not just the work they do or the material they (volunteers) bring," she said. "It's the hope. When people feel down, here comes another group!"
Assessing the Next Steps
Like the many other communities trying to recover from the wind and water of Hurricane Ike, relief services are in place in Sabine Pass, with ice, food, drinking water and MREs (meals ready to eat) being distributed by National Guard troops. Electrical power, running water, and sewer service are not currently available. Representatives from the US Department of Public Health were present on September 23 to offer their services to the community. Saunders encouraged them to attend a community meeting on Thursday to discuss health issues.
"We need cleaning supplies," he said. Through the Rita experience, a warehouse will be set up for residents to "shop" for what they need. Arrangements are being made to deliver flood buckets and health kits from UMCOR Sager Brown.
The community is working to get children back into school, which was not damaged and is running on a generator. Some residents were already back at their homes trying to salvage contents. Saunder's own home was completely washed away. He found some of his belongings in the nearby marsh, but has no idea where his boat is. Temporary housing will be needed.
How to Help
Pastor Key and her congregation are maintaining two web sites to keep people informed and to request assistance, www.sabinepassumc.org and www.ikerecovery.info. Saunders explained that during Rita, they often received items that really weren't usable. The "ikerecovery" site will list specific needs for recovering residents, as well as the types of teams and tools needed.
"Right now we need wheelbarrows and pitchforks," he said. "We need lots of help for clean-up," Key emphasized.
UMCOR is in continuing conversation with the Texas Conference to help with relief and recovery efforts. You can help by donating assembled flood buckets to UMCOR Sager Brown. Click here for a list of contents. In addition, financial gifts to UMCOR Advance # 3019695, Hurricanes 2008, can be made by check to UMCOR, P.O. Box 9068, New York, NY 10087, or online by credit card, will aid the work of recovery, expected to be a multi-year effort in Texas and Louisiana.
If you are a member of a volunteer team interested in working in the Texas Conference for relief or recovery efforts, you can register on-line at the Texas Conference web site. Additional photos from Sabine Pass UMC and the community are posted to the conference web site.
*Meister is UMCOR's Domestic Disaster Response Correspondent