From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Georges' Victims Mostly Spared Catastrophic Damage

Date 02 Oct 1998 20:07:39

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    Georges' Victims Mostly Spared Catastrophic Damage 
    by Alexa Smith 
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -Even though he's been showering at a neighbor's house and 
been without power since early Sunday night - and even though the front 
yard is littered with shingles, dead birds and defoliated trees - the Rev. 
Chuck Harris says what many Gulf Coast residents are saying these days: "It 
coulda been worse." 
    He's talking, of course, about Georges, the 
hurricane-turned-tropical-storm whose gusty rains saturated southern 
Alabama, southeastern Georgia, coastal Mississippi and northern Florida in 
a slow moving downpour that flooded rivers and sent evacuees as far north 
as Memphis. 
    "It was bad," said Harris, who lost electricity but not telephone 
service during the storm's 48-hour stop over Pascagoula, Miss., where he's 
pastor of the that city's 458-member Presbyterian church.  "But you know? 
We survived.  And we've not heard of any deaths here ... [though] a number 
of families in our congregations lost just about everything.  One house got 
three-feet of water, another - a single woman's - had two.  Another has 
warped floors.  Another lost everything. 
    "Everybody has some damage," he said, adding that First church's 
deacons and elders with working phones are busy tracking down who lost what 
and who went where now that the storm has passed. 
    That's what most survivors and evacuees are doing now - getting past 
the downed power lines and the uprooted trees to see what's waterlogged or 
missing and who has electricity and water that doesn't need to be boiled. 
Two Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) Team members - Dan Grimes of 
Virginia Beach, Va., and Tom Jackson of  W.Va., are readying to tour the 
gulf states to help assess damage. 
    Actual damage to churches is still believed to be relatively minor, 
according to PDA's Stan Hankins.  Although the final toll isn't in, 
Presbyterians are reporting roof and water damage to two churches in Key 
West, Fla., Trinity and Covenant; one in Marathon, Fla., Kirk of the Keys; 
and to Westminster Church in Gulfport, Miss. Orange Grove Presbyterian 
Church near Gulfport  is reporting roof damage and First Pascagoula just 
discovered cracks in the walls of the church's education building. 
    To date, $10,000 in One Great Hour of Sharing dollars has been sent to 
the Presbytery of Mississippi, and another $20,000 to the Synod of Puerto 
    Destruction is far worse in the Caribbean where, according to 
Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA), four pastors in Puerto Rico lost 
their homes.  At least one church - Third Presbyterian in Aguadilla - is 
reporting significant roof and water damage to the chapel and the 
fellowship hall.  Statistics on crop and property damage are still being 
compiled by churches in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba and outlying 
areas of Puerto Rico - where Georges' fury hit full-force, killing more 
than 370 people in the islands. 
    Four storm-related deaths have been reported in the United States. 
    "This was bearing down on New Orleans and we were preparing for the 
absolute worst.  They were predicting monumental levels of water, that the 
city would be inundated ... and people did one of three things: evacuated, 
sought shelter locally or made provisions to ride out the storm," said the 
Rev. Don Frampton, pastor of the St. Charles Avenue Presbyterian Church in 
New Orleans, where a temporary shelter was set up inside windowless rooms 
in the church.  "People were," he said, "totally preoccupied with what was 
    "Nobody was thinking about anything but responding to this thing that 
was coming at us." 
    As Georges initially headed up the Mississippi River toward Lake 
Ponchartrain, weather analysts were forecasting the doomsday scenario that 
New Orleaneans - who live well below sea-level - dread: that Georges' 
surges would spill over the banks of the manmade Lake Ponchartrain and 
swallow the city that the lake is responsible for keeping dry. 
    "It was a scary to watch this thing coming at you," said the Rev. 
Robert Dalgleish of the Canal Street Presbyterian Church, whose own house 
sits about 200 yards from Ponchartrain.  "We couldn't pray that it would 
miss us, just that God would be merciful. 
    "If it missed us, it would just hit somebody else." 
    But miss New Orleans it did, unexpectedly turning left thirty miles 
away from the city and thrashing the Gulf Coast instead. 
    "This was just long ongoing rain, rain, rain," said the Rev. Emett 
Barfield Jr., Mississippi Presbytery's executive who drove 500 miles Oct. 1 
visiting congregations on the Mississippi/Alabama line where the storm 
hovered for nearly two days.  "The winds were [not so high].  But this was 
48 hours of sustained rain and it really did a lot of devastation." 
    Barfield told the Presbyterian News Service that an inter-faith 
response team is currently forming to do relief work in both Biloxi County, 
Miss., and in Mobile County, Ala.  Financial aid, he said, will be 
distributed to Presbyterians there who lost property in the storms and then 
to the wider community.  "There's [significant] pastoral work now ... in 
addition to the physical work of cleaning up. 
    "There is dealing with the grief that comes," he said, "when a person 
sees everything that he or she owns is gone." 
    There's plenty of waiting to be done too. 
    "We're just doing the typical waiting it out," said the Rev. Dick 
Swayze of Gulfport, who, living near the bayou, got about one-foot of water 
inside his home. His church, Westminster, had  a tree fall through the roof 
of the educational building.  "We're just using old-fashioned networking 
[to gather information about friends, neighbors and congregants].  Somebody 
calls somebody who calls somebody else," he said. Elders are going around 
in cars now to check on people and the secretary - whose phone never went 
out - has been calling ... "I think most in our congregation got through it 
    Harris finds it uncanny that the storm broke last Monday morning - and 
worship will next be on Worldwide Communion Sunday, when church-goers 
celebrate the ties that bind them locally and globally.  "It's very 
appropriate," he said, reflecting on the communion that he says is going on 
- and has gone on all week - in Pascagoula. He's been showering at a 
Southern Baptist neighbor's house, sharing meals with the Episcopals' next 
door, opening his home to several members of the congregation and working 
closely to ready for the storm with a Greek Orthodox neighbor.  "We've been 
able to break bread together all week long and that cements in my mind that 
we are one Spirit, one big community of faith." 
    PDA has established an account to assist with recovery from Georges. 
It is titled Tropical Storm/Hurricanes `98 and the number is 92-0000139. 
Checks may be mailed to: Presbyterian Church (USA), Central Receiving 
Service, Department 97590, Louisville, Ky. 40279-7590. 

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