ALPHARETTA, Ga. — “As early
as Aug. 26, we had pulled in a skeleton crew and opened the disaster operations
center (DOC),” recounted Mickey Caison, disaster relief coordinator at the
North American Mission Board (NAMB) in Alpharetta, Ga., in 2005. “We had also
called the state conventions and mobilized an incident command team.”
On Monday, Aug. 29, at about
6:10 a.m. Hurricane Katrina made its monstrous landfall in southeast Louisiana.
Packing 125 mph winds with intense central pressure, Katrina would be the third
most powerful storm to ever hit the United States — and one of the deadliest.
More than 1,800 would perish
directly in the hurricane itself or from the unprecedented flooding to follow.
Eighty percent of New Orleans and surrounding parishes were flooded when levees
broke; the putrid floodwaters — contaminated with sewage, gasoline, oil and
chemicals — lingered for weeks.
With some 300,000 homes and
businesses destroyed or damaged, Katrina left $81 billion in damages in its
wake, the costliest hurricane in U.S. history. Mississippi beach towns like
Gulfport and Biloxi — where the surge flooded inland as far as 12 miles — were
devastated. One-third of New Orleans’ population moved away and never returned.
Today, Caison will tell you
that just as things were never the same after Pearl Harbor, JFK’s assassination
or 9/11, the Gulf Coast and Southern Baptist Disaster Relief (SBDR) have not
been the same since Katrina.
Caison and the SBDR team
initially thought Katrina would only be a “wind event” — albeit a serious one —
with destructive wind damage predicted as far north as Jackson, Miss.
Caison and his team had
local disaster relief teams hunkered down in Mississippi and Louisiana in
addition to using three staging sites — Shocco Springs Baptist Conference
Center near Talladega, Ala., Camp Garaywa in Clinton, Miss., and a venue in
Marshall, Texas — for the scores of volunteers en route from 41 of Southern
Baptists’ state conventions.
On Tuesday, we saw the
levees break and the flooding begin in New Orleans,” said Caison, now adult
volunteer mobilization team leader at NAMB. “We saw the thousands of people
trapped in the Superdome and the New Orleans Convention Center. We realized how
bad New Orleans was going to take it.”
Starting on the western side
of New Orleans and Lake Pontchartrain, and moving into southern Jefferson and
Plaquemines parishes, and west of the Mississippi River down to Houma, Southern
Baptist Disaster Relief finally was able to move in its first feeding and
chainsaw units a few days later. “On the initial push, we had 30 feeding units
deployed,” Caison said.
For 196 continuous days —
from Aug. 29, 2005, until March 12, 2006 — Southern Baptist Disaster Relief was
in full operation. The DOC staff in Alpharetta, Ga., initially worked around
the clock and, later, 16-hour days.
In addition to all the SBDR
work under way in Louisiana and Mississippi, 13 other conventions also were
responding in their own states — ministering to the 1.2 million homeless
evacuees forced to leave the flooded Gulf Coast areas for places like San
Antonio, Atlanta, Minneapolis and even New York.
Into the following year,
Southern Baptist relief did not stop, but transitioned into Project NOAH (New
Orleans Area Homes) Rebuild.
North Carolina Baptist Men
concentrated on Gulfport, where they eventually repaired or rebuilt 715 homes.
“By November and December of
2005, it was clear to us we needed a long-term rebuild program,” Caison said.
Project NOAH would be funded by the balance of some $25 million Southern
Baptists and others had generously contributed to NAMB and to their state
convention offices for Katrina relief.
Kicking off in May 2006,
Project NOAH Rebuild would draw another 26,500 volunteers from across America
to New Orleans, usually staying a week at a time, sleeping on cots or in
sleeping bags in New Orleans’ World Trade Center or at a Southern Baptist
church in St. Bernard Parish.
These NOAH Rebuild
volunteers assisted with the building or re-building of some 500 homes in New
Orleans, many located in the flood-ravaged Lower Ninth Ward area where
floodwater from the ruptured levees spilled over into neighborhood after
neighborhood. Another 26 water-damaged churches, schools and ministry centers
also were repaired under Project NOAH Rebuild.
Today, five years later —
with current responses under way in Haiti, American Samoa and in recently
flooded Iowa, Texas and Kentucky — Caison said the real-life lessons and
inspiring examples learned from Katrina have paved the way to improvements
evident in Southern Baptist Disaster Relief in 2010.
Need more chaplains
Caison said Hurricane Katrina
also pointed out and solidified the need for more disaster relief chaplains, to
the point that there are now 4,000-5,000 more trained disaster relief chaplains
on standby than before Katrina.
“We’ve seen more and
stronger partnerships between NAMB, the state conventions, associations and
churches in disaster-affected areas because of Katrina,” Caison continued.
“The way we conducted our
ministry during Katrina also caused the federal and state governments to stand
up and take notice. Our relationships with FEMA and state governments changed
because they finally began to understand what Southern Baptist Disaster Relief
is about. Washington (D.C.) folks finally realized that we bring more to the
table than our relationships with the Red Cross or The Salvation Army. They
began to understand who we are and now recognize us as one of the top three
disaster relief organizations in the United States.”
Caison said Southern Baptist
relationships also blossomed after Hurricane Katrina with other evangelical
organizations such as Samaritan’s Purse, Operation Blessing, Convoy of Hope and
other para-church organizations — leading to the creation of the Christian
Relief Cooperative, a group of evangelical organizations involved in disaster
The number of trained Southern
Baptist Disaster Relief volunteers has climbed to an all-time high of 95,000, a
46 percent increase over the 51,300 trained volunteers just prior to Katrina.
In fact, just in the few months following Katrina in 2005, Caison said 25,000
new volunteers were trained.
Southern Baptist Disaster
Relief’s fleet — which numbered about 800 vehicles in 2005 — has grown to 1,550
“Disaster relief continues
to evolve,” Caison reflected. “The number of state conventions that have come
on line have increased over the last 10 years. Some are still emerging.
Usually, it boils down to funding. Most state conventions operate on the
donations made during a response. If funding does not come, they cannot
Caison said Southern Baptist
disaster relief’s mantra is “serving Christ in the crisis.”
“Disaster relief will
continue to be used to kick down the doors of opportunity,” Caison said. “After
a disaster response, there are people who come up to us and say, ‘Please start
a Southern Baptist church in our community.’ We’re working harder to follow up
and do just that — to use disaster relief as a means to plant new churches.”
Caison said disaster relief’s
physical and spiritual ministries are two sides of the same coin.
“Jesus said to the 12: ‘Go
preach, share the story and heal the sick.’ He said to the 70: ‘Go heal the
sick, share the story and preach.’ We have to do both the physical and the
spiritual ministries. If we don’t, we’re just a social organization.
“As people in a disaster ask
us who we are, where we came from, etc., we can transition to sharing the gospel.
And while we’re harvesting during disaster relief, we’re also planting seeds
and watering as well. That’s who we are. That’s our DNA.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Noah is a
writer for the North American Mission Board.)