With the one year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina has come a noticeable drop in the number of relief volunteers heading to the gulf coast, according to the coordinator of one faith-based rebuilding program located in Long Beach, Mississippi.
What hasn’t subsided is the need for volunteer workers.
“Once a day we’re getting new applications for assistance ” says Chris Barnhardt, the site manager and disaster relief coordinator for the Presbytery of Mississippi’s relief effort in Long Beach, a town with a pre-hurricane population of 17,000 tucked between Gulfport and Pass Christian.
“They’re either someone we helped before that has something new, or someone who didn’t know they could come here for help,” says Barnhardt.
To date the Long Beach site has assisted 150 local households with hurricane damage repair. “The waiting list is a constant, probably a good twenty to thirty. We have several houses in stages of repair. There are so many people out there that need help.”
Barnhardt’s operation is based out of Long Beach Presbyterian Church. Located a quarter mile from the shoreline, the church complex was in the last few feet of buildings to be impacted by flooding from the storm surge.
The fellowship hall was damaged beyond repair—it was moved twenty feet to the north of its foundation and had to be demolished.
The church itself fared better, filling with only one foot of water. After the carpets and a few tile floors and sanctuary walls were replaced, the Sunday school rooms were converted into dormitories filled with bunk beds for relief workers. The church now can accommodate over sixty volunteers. Hot and cold outdoor showers, a fifty foot long dining tent, and a bank of portable toilets were installed. Meals for volunteers who are housed at the church are provided by the Presbyterian Women fellowship organization.
“When we first started at Long Beach we were housing a good number of folks,” says Barnhardt. “I had an average of 200-300 a month. In spring and summer it went up to 500 to 600 a month.”
In January, Karl Branch of Savannah led a group of seven volunteers from White Bluff Presbyterian Church to Long Beach.
“The conditions were total chaos, incredible destruction,” says Branch, a retiree who lives on the southside. “On television, when they talk about Katrina they are talking about New Orleans. Rarely do you hear about anything else. We were totally unprepared for what we saw. When you stood on the beach and looked across Highway 90, you turn left or you turn right and as far as you can see there’s nothing but rubble.” In the months since Branch’s visit, most of the rubble has been hauled away to landfills, leaving a wasteland of broken trees, vacant lots, slab foundations, and the occasional FEMA trailer or partially remodeled house.
Branch’s group spent most of their time “mugging out” a house owned by an elderly woman. “We stripped the house, we removed everything except the rafters. Water had gotten up to about six feet, you could see it on the wall. Cabinets, wiring, everything got moved out.
“We met the lady, she was 84 years old at that time. It broke my heart, she was so happy that we had stripped the house. We came down there to rebuild and instead we tore down, and she was so happy.”
Branch will return to Long Beach in September, this time with a group of fifteen volunteers from several churches in Savannah. His timing is good, because other than the Savannah group, Barnhardt has no teams scheduled for the rest of the month, and very few for October through December. Last week at a planning meeting for faith-based relief programs, Barnhardt heard similar stories of volunteer shortages from other coordinators in the area.
“Now everybody’s getting back into their routine,” says Barnhardt. “They’re going back to work, back to school. You see less and less of the hurricane on TV. We’re going into one year of it. People get it out of their minds. We’ve really slowed down in terms of volunteers.”
Barnhardt encourages anyone to volunteer, regardless of skill level, but notes that “we’ve got a lot of houses needing carpentry and framing, and we definitely need electricians and plumbers.”
Because each group of workers typically stays for less than a week, most projects are completed in stages, with different people pitching in on each stage. With almost no groups scheduled for the rest of the year, the progress of one particular long term project has been frustratingly slow.
“We’ve been working on one couple’s house for a few months,” says Barnhardt. “They’re still in a FEMA trailer. We’ve got just the kitchen cabinets left to do and flooring. That’s the only thing left. I talked to them yesterday and told them we were on a shortage of volunteers right now--that we are just on a standstill until we get some more people.”
Although Barnhardt is living several hours from his wife and two children in the city of Meridian, he intends to stay in Long Beach for at least another year.
“I’ve been able to meet some wonderful friends, caring and loving hearts and souls. They’ve lost everything and they can still smile about your life, they can still wave at you and care about your needs. Even though they know I’m here to help them they have helped me more.” ç
Groups and individuals wishing to volunteer with the Presbytery of Mississippi may contact the Mississippi relief scheduler at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by calling 228-604-2424. Barnhardt says it is not necessary to be affiliated with a faith organization to be housed at his work site.