Texas dioceses respond to Hurricane Ike

Churches report some damage as neighbors offer help
September 14, 2008

Episcopal Dioceses in Texas and Louisiana spent much of September 15 assessing damage wrought by Hurricane Ike and trying to help care for the storm's survivors.

Episcopal parishes in the Houston-based Diocese of Texas reported no loss of life among their congregations. However, Texas Bishop Don Wimberly reported via video message posted on YouTube September 15 that "most congregations on the mainland suffered wind and water damage."

"We remain naturally concerned about our island churches and those in the southeastern part of our diocese -- Beaumont and Orange," Wimberly said. "We're concerned about our parishioners on Galveston and Bolivar islands, [along with those] in the eastern coastal region."

In the Diocese of Western Louisiana, Bishop Bruce MacPherson reported on September 13 that the storm surge in the Lake Charles/Sulphur area was "unbelievable." Clergy told him that the surge was "10 times worse" than Hurricane Rita which hit the diocese in 2005 just after Hurricane Katrina. Clergy and parishioners have had their homes flooded with as much as four feet of water, the bishop said. Flooding reportedly spread 30 miles inland in that part of the state.

In the Diocese of Louisiana water from Ike's storm surge inundated areas that were still trying to recover from Hurricane Gustav.

Meanwhile, Episcopal Relief and Development said in a news release that it is responding with funds to address the immediate needs of vulnerable families in the hard-hit Diocese of Texas.

"Episcopal Relief and Development is communicating with affected dioceses in Western Louisiana, Texas, West Texas and Arkansas and is providing critical assistance as the needs arise," said Don Cimato of ERD. "We are working in coordination with voluntary organizations at state and national levels with the goal of preventing the duplication of services."

Cimato said ERD is "prepared to provide food, water, medicine, shelter and other basic supplies as well as long-term rebuilding in the aftermath of the destructive hurricane season."

Thus far, officials attribute 32 deaths in nine states to Ike, which made landfall about 2:10 a.m. CDT September 13 at Galveston, Texas, as a 600-mile wide category 2 storm packing winds of at least 110 mph. Seven people died in Texas and six in Louisiana, while the majority of the other people died elsewhere as Ike moved on to drench the Midwest, causing flooding, destroying homes and downing trees, the New York Times reported.

Some estimates put the total number of Ike-related power outages at 7.5 million, including most of Houston and ranging as far north as Albany and Buffalo, New York, where 60,000 homes were reported to be without power on September 15. It will take weeks to restore power, especially in Texas where Ike ripped apart the transmission gird and flooded a major generating plant with four feet of snake-infested water.

Assessing damage, caring for Episcopalians in Texas
Wimberly said in his September 15 video update that diocesan officials and Church Insurance representatives will develop a "triage list" to guide efforts to rehabilitate congregational facilities. The bishops are also trying to contact clergy and he appealed to any who had not been called, but who were viewing the YouTube report, to contact one of the diocese's bishops.

The outpouring of aid, especially from the northern part of the diocese, has been "very humbling," Wimberly reported. "Many a coastal Episopalian found a church, found shelter, found friends -- people to surround them with their love and care," he said.

Winberly ended his seven-and-a-half minute video with prayers from the Book of Common Prayer and his blessing.

Ike shattered windows in Houston's high-rise JPMorgan Chase Tower, sending glass shards and debris into the yard of the diocesan center, two blocks from the tower. In a September 14 video message, Wimberly reported that the offices had sustained only minor leaks.

"The diocesan yard out here in the front is strewn with pieces of [JPMorgan Chase's] blinds, paper probably from their desks, a lot of glass from the windows that have been blown out," he said, as police helicopters flew overhead.

The diocesan offices will re-open September 16, and diocesan Treasurer Bob Biehl will meet with representatives of Church Insurance as they begin assessing damage to church buildings.

Episcopal High School in Houston had no damage but will be closed all week. The school's website said the facility might have power by September 21.

Damage in Galveston, a low-lying community on the coast, was extensive and evacuees were told they would not be able to return for at least five days.

Trinity Church (about eight blocks from the Galveston Bay) took on water and had a hole punched in a Tiffany window above the altar, according to the diocese. Pictures of Grace Episcopal Church in Galveston on television news looked as if there might be rising water in the nave, the diocese said.

Trees were blown down at the Camp Allen conference center outside Houston, which is housing a number of nursing home patients evacuated due to the storm, including some from St. James' House, Baytown. Many first responders are also staging at Camp Allen.

In southeast Texas, coastal communities including Bridge City and Orangefield were badly flooded. "Information from Port Arthur, Groves, Nederland and Port Neches says that the electricity, phone lines, water and sewer are either down or compromised," wrote the Rev. Cliff Rucker of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Port Neches in an e-mail to the diocesan center. Rucker, his wife Judith and their three cats had evacuated to his parents' home in Alexandria, Louisiana.

Wimberly, and suffragans Dena Harrison and Rayford High and co-adjutor elect Andrew Doyle will not attend the House of Bishops' meeting in Salt Lake City Sept. 16-19 in order to monitor the situation in the diocese.

"We have heard from many of our neighboring bishops who have offered help and for this we give thanks … Please continue your prayers for those of us across the diocese as we together are going to come through this and be stronger and better for it," wrote Wimberly in an e-mail message.

Louisiana gets 'significant flooding'
Nell Bolton, head of the Diocese of Louisiana's Office of Disaster Response, told ENS September 15 that the diocese was "mobilizing in response" to "significant flooding" in areas all around New Orleans.

She called Ike a "really strange storm" that began to cause flooding east of New Orleans around Slidell on September 11. The wind blew for three days and the "water just kept coming up and coming up," she said. Flooding caused by Hurricane Gustav had not yet subsided, Bolton said, thus adding pushing Ike's surge levels higher.

"People are reeling" from Ike, she said, in part because they had little time to catch their breath after Gustav hit the area September 1. For instance, many people had just gotten their homes tarped over only to have Ike blow that material away.

Terrebonne Parish, the civil jurisdiction which includes St. Matthew's Episcopal Church in Houma and St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in the Bayou du Large area, was swamped by Ike's storm surge. The parish government reported September 14 that approximately 15,000 structures had been flooded. At least 100 people had been rescued.

Bolton and another person tried to reach St. Andrew's in the Bayou du Large area on September 14 but could not get through due to flooding. An ODR official plans to head to the area September 16 with basic supplies, including water and bleach, Bolton said. Deacons took food to areas of Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes September 15.

The diocese is attempting to help people with basic needs at the moment and will make plans about aiding in housing rehabilitation once the water recedes, Bolton said.

Hosting evacuees in West Texas
As Ike approached, the San Antonio-based Diocese of West Texas braced to become a principal hosting city for many of the 20,000 to 30,000 expected evacuees. Many diocesan families (the diocese has about 30,000 Episcopalians) agreed to open their homes to the evacuees. That effort was organized by Diocesan Emergency Coordinator Bob Thompson. The Rev. Cristopher Robinson, the diocesan housing coordinator who is also the assistant rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church in San Antonio, serves as the go-between in matching evacuees with hosts.

At least one West Texas congregation, Church of the Holy Spirit in San Antonio, opened its building and its parking lot to evacuees. One family spent a night in their RV parked in the church's parking lot and three families of evacuees showed up for services on September 15, according to Vicar Reese Friedman.

The Associated Press reported September 15 that official shelters in San Antonio housed nearly 5,000 evacuees and more than 4,000 people rode out the storm in tents, RVs and campers, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. As of September 15, not many evacuees had taken advantage of West Texas Episcopalians' offers of housing, Robinson said, adding he expected to get more requests as evacuees learn how long it will be before they can return home. Thompson told ENS later in the day that San Antonio expected to receive about 5,000 more evacuees yet that day.

Thompson said the diocese is considering offering one of it camps to house evacuees if that space is needed. Episcopalians have also been going through the vetting process to become Red Cross volunteers and have been assembling hygiene kits (made up of personal-care products and a towel) to give to evacuees, he said.

Sheltering evacuees has become what Thompson called a "multi-faceted problem," with people who evacuated before the storm wanting to go home but being unable to do so and people who rode out the storm now having to be evacuated. Both groups have little idea how long it will be before they can return to see what has happened to their homes.

Before it hit the U.S., Hurricane Ike battered Haiti and Cuba September 8 and 9, adding to damage caused by Hurricane Gustav in late August. The island of Hispaniola, where Haiti is located, was also hit by tropical storms Fay and Hanna. Ike killed four people on Cuba September 8 and forced at least one million others to flee.