Recovery takes time

Church looks toward long-term rebuilding, companionships, disaster preparedness
October 31, 2005

The forging of partnerships with congregations and dioceses that suffered hurricane damage, a pledge of long-term commitment from Episcopal Relief and Development and the beginning of a new national plan for disaster preparedness have developed in recent weeks as bishops and then Executive Council met and took steps to respond to the devastation caused by hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Bishops in the four affected dioceses and Episcopal Church Center officials repeatedly acknowledged at those meetings that some people and parishes have become frustrated in past weeks as their offers of assistance were met with requests that they wait patiently.

“What we need are your continual prayers,” Bishop Duncan Gray III of the Diocese of Mississippi told the House of Bishops meeting in Puerto Rico a month ago. “To know we are in your prayers is terribly important.”

Bishop Charles Jenkins said toxic sludge covered much of the flooded area of New Orleans once the water receded. “I’ve got a whole city of churches with no people,” he said. “I know there is anger and disappointment in the way we have not responded,” he said, but said that housing and food for volunteer workers currently were unavailable.

David Pitts of Louisiana, chair of the Church Pension Group board of trustees, told the bishops that it would step in to support the dioceses and clergy, many of whom have lost their homes and their parishes. He said his diocese’s needs would stretch over years. "That's really the operative word today: long-term," said Robert Radtke, president of Episcopal Relief and Development. “This very much continues to be an open crisis.”

Radtke, appointed just days before the two hurricanes swept through dioceses of the Central Gulf Coast, Mississippi, Louisiana and Western Louisiana, said recovery would be “a colossal undertaking.” “Be patient as we construct a response to this,” he said, predicting needs would extend at least four years, possibly more. Episcopalians have contributed more than $6 million to the church’s fund for hurricane relief.

Partnership program details

Bishop George Packard, a Vietnam War veteran who is the suffragan bishop for chaplaincies at the Episcopal Church Center, has set into motion a plan called "We Will Stand With You" that matches dioceses with congregations and institutions in the Gulf region that need help.

Packard’s office, which has deployed Episcopal chaplains to do “grief recovery,” is coordinating volunteer assistance so that all affected areas will receive aid, not only those with previous relationships to other congregations and dioceses. Packard also said he wanted to set into motion a program that would develop disaster-preparedness teams in each of the church’s nine provinces.

That project, as yet unfunded by the national church, would cost $350,000, Packard estimated.
Executive Council at its meeting Oct. 10 in Las Vegas concluded that the hurricanes demonstrated the need for dioceses and congregations to have disaster plans. A council resolution recommends that dioceses and congregations “take steps to provide instructions to clergy and other leaders concerning what to do and where to go in the event of a natural disaster or terrorist event.”

The council also asked that the staff of the national church center in New York study whether to create an office of disaster planning. The long-term rebuilding effort is not one of merely rebuilding church buildings, Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold told the council, “but helping to rebuild whole communities, because without the community, the church has no purpose.”

That rebuilding, he added, must always answer the gospel’s call to build communities that are equitable and that meet the needs of their most vulnerable members.