United Methodist Committee on Relief

 A Time of Terror — and Caring — After Katrina

After being rescued from the floodwaters, thousands of people needed spiritual care as well as home repairs. Win Henderson/FEMAAfter being rescued from the floodwaters, thousands of people needed spiritual care as well as home repairs. Win Henderson/FEMA

Hurricane Katrina brought a new set of rules for response among faith-based and voluntary agencies

By Susan Kim

As Hurricane Katrina churned and strengthened before making landfall in the U.S. on Aug. 29, 2005, most people tuned into televised weather forecasts to watch real-time images of the storm as it headed for the Gulf Coast. But even with sophisticated weather technology and advanced warnings, people had little idea of the catastrophic impact Katrina would have.

Bishop Hope Morgan Ward who was then serving in Mississippi — remembers leaving a shop at closing time on Saturday afternoon. “…the shopkeeper simply locked up — no boarding up, no moving things from the floor or lower shelves.  On Monday afternoon, there was nothing where the shop had been,” she said.

The roads became snarled with traffic, and many people made it only as far as one tank of gas could take them — northward to shelters in churches, schools and community centers.

There are many who will never forget the trauma, said Ward. “Those who did not evacuate experienced terror, climbing into attics, clinging to tall trees, praying for deliverance.”

As vivid as her memory is of the frightening aftermath, Ward also remembers feeling UMCORs presence immediately. “UMCOR staff helped us network for first responders, first shipments of supplies, an incoming flow of volunteers, spiritual care for clergy and other caregivers, spiritual care for children and others who had experienced trauma, and long-term recovery, including the building of three recovery centers for the stockpiling of supplies and the housing of volunteers.”

Response Altered Forever

UMCOR led Katrina Aid Today, a case management program that received a $66 million grant administered by FEMA. Marvin Nauman/FEMA
UMCOR led Katrina Aid Today, a case management program that received a $66 million grant administered by FEMA. Marvin Nauman/FEMA

With the same “looking back perspective” that disaster responders had in 1972 when Hurricane Agnes forever changed their thinking, Hurricane Katrina brought a whole new set of rules for response among faith-based and voluntary agencies, reflected Cathy Earl, executive secretary for U.S. Disaster Response.

“Before Katrina happened, UMCOR’s teaching was that people who were affected by the disaster should not be doing disaster case management,” she said. “But in New Orleans, it was hard to find disaster case managers who were not also affected by Katrina. As it turned out, these case managers helped others recover as they themselves were recovering. And so we began thinking about meaningful ways these people could be supported. UMCOR recognizes that catastrophic disasters require adaptive strategies such as this.”

UMCOR’s ability to offer case management evolved quickly in the post-Katrina weeks and months. UMCOR led an effort that coalesced nine faith-based and voluntary agencies into a case management program, Katrina Aid Today, which received a $66 million grant administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). UMCOR also helped fund another estimated $66 million for conference support in the region affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. 

One Church of Many

A memorial to those lost in Hurricane Katrina stands at Shell Beach in Louisiana. Patsy Lynch/FEMA

A memorial to those lost in Hurricane Katrina stands at Shell Beach in Louisiana. Patsy Lynch/FEMA​

The stories of “neighbors helping neighbors” in the aftermath of Katrina are so numerous its impossible to document them all. It is worth noting that the huge response to Katrina is essentially a mosaic of the single, small kind acts of one person, one church, one organization — multiplied in countless ways.

David Cumbest, disaster response coordinator for the Mississippi Conference, remembers the congregation of the Heritage United Methodist Church (UMC) in DIberville.

It wasnt just an immediate act of hospitality on their part, he said, since the response went on for years. 

“They opened their hearts to the suffering of their neighbors, opened their minds to the possibility that they could make a difference, and opened their doors to thousands of people receiving supplies and thousands of volunteers over a five-year period.”

Many people define long-term disaster recovery as developing “a new normal.” Heritage UMC was a church that, in the act of caring for people, developed a “new normal” that brought both discomfort and rewards. “There were bunk beds in the Sunday School rooms, supplies in the fellowship hall, people sleeping between the pews in the sanctuary,” recalls Cumbest. 

“The driveway was filled with supplies, the front and back lawn with equipment and travel trailers.  On Sunday morning all the mattresses and gear would be stacked against the back wall, and there may even be a team of strangers sitting in your favorite seat. In the midst of all this chaos there was a peace that surpasses all understanding and a joy of service that comes from making a difference.”

Rita: The Forgotten Second Storm?

On the heels of Hurricane Katrina came Hurricane Rita, the fourth most intense Atlantic hurricane ever recorded. In Louisiana, the storm surge from Rita inundated low-lying communities near the coast, worsening effects caused by Hurricane Katrina less than a month prior.

“We really had to work hard to focus on both storms,” recalled Bishop William Hutchinson, who was serving in Louisiana during the Katrina/Rita era. “It was very easy for the Rita disaster to just kind of get shoved aside in light of Katrina and yet Rita was one of the most severe storms the U.S. had withstood as well. The impact of Katrina — at least in Louisiana — was magnified by Rita. UMCOR was wonderful during both storms.”

There are advantages and disadvantages to being a hurricane-experienced state: on one hand, residents are used to coping with damage. On the other hand, they thought Katrina would be like every other hurricane.

“People’s attitude initially was, ‘We have been through hurricanes before, and in five months it will be back to normal.’ It wasn’t long before those of us in the worst-hit areas began to say: this isn’t going to be over in just a few months. This will be a huge task to undertake.”

Hutchinson describes UMCORs response to Katrina — which officially lasted seven years before the last recovery project closed but unofficially still goes on today— as “significant” and “powerful.” UMCORs support was expanded and augmented with support from government, faith-based and voluntary groups.

“UMCORs response was incredible,” he said. “And so was the response of the world.”

*Susan Kim is a journalist and a regular contributor to

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