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Hurricanes’ devastation is emotional as well as physical

Florida UUs uneasy about third stormy year; Louisiana church is hiring to help volunteers.
By Donald E. Skinner

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FEMA trailer park residents

Residents of the FEMA trailer park south of Hattiesburg, Miss., enjoy a Thanksgiving dinner with members of the Hattiesburg UU Fellowship. (Photo by Cindy Brown) (Cindy Brown)

The new year is dawning and the 2005 hurricane season is history, but all across the Gulf Coast there are still reminders: piles of debris that once were homes and businesses, and familiar landscapes—both physical and emotional—forever changed.

The Rev. Mary Higgins, district executive of the Florida District of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, sees it in the eyes of Unitarian Universalists as she visits congregations. In 2004, four devastating hurricanes raked Florida, affecting nearly every UU congregation. In 2005, there were two more.

The bad news is that weather experts from Colorado State University are predicting a high likelihood of more hurricanes than normal next season. The good news is that they expect fewer hurricanes to reach land.

Higgins worries about what will happen if there is a third damaging hurricane season. “People are trying to decide if this is the ‘new normal,’” she says. “I am finding a huge amount of anxiety about next year. People say they can’t do this a third time. There are some people who still don’t have their roofs repaired from last year. Congregations are doing their very best, but members have prepared so many times for storms and evacuations that it’s taking an emotional toll. I’m finding that congregations are reluctant to plan anything between August and December.”

After Hurricane Charley in August, 2004, members of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Charlotte County in Port Charlotte, Fla., struggled to cope with damage to their homes and businesses. The congregation lost 25 members, some of whom moved from the area. But now, 16 months later, the congregation has gained 25 new members and resumed a long-range planning process Charley halted.

The congregation is ready to move on, says the Rev. Sara Zimmerman, the minister for four years. “There’s a feeling of excitement here that I haven’t felt for a while,” she says. “We had a crisis and we came through it.”

Eunice Benton, district executive of the UUA’s Mid-South District, believes that hurricanes are emotionally as well as physically destructive. “These storms are hugely stressful,” she says. “They have reshaped the world around us. It’s more than just houses and businesses blown down. Many of the natural landmarks that we relied on are gone. There are people who have lost their favorite shade tree or grove of trees. That’s a big deal here in the South where shade is very important.”

“We’re going to need to minister to each other for the next two to five years just because of what has already happened,” she says. “And I fear we’re going to have more of this.”

The message Higgins and Benton want people to hear is that it’s been wonderful that we as an association have collected more than $3 million for hurricane relief and have sent teams in to help affected congregations recover--but don’t forget about our Gulf Coast congregations just because the storms have passed.

“These congregations still need people to reach out to them,” says Benton. “Simple things like sending notes saying, ‘We’re thinking about you,’ and asking what they can do to help means so much.”

Jon and Sara Peterson, of Homer, Alaska, took that message to heart recently. Listening to a National Public Radio story on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina while visiting their daughter in Ann Arbor, Mich., they decided to point their 32-foot recreational vehicle south. They contacted the UU Trauma Response Team, which directed them to Hattiesburg, Miss., where the 22-member UU Fellowship of Hattiesburg was working with a group of displaced people in Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers in the Little Black Creek Water Park south of Hattiesburg.

The Petersons pulled their RV into the park before Thanksgiving and used it as a base to support the fellowship’s work. Nell Cobb, the fellowship’s social action committee chair, said members had been working with camp residents for several weeks before that, providing assistance with transportation to medical appointments, picking up prescriptions, helping people apply for assistance, and providing food and clothing. Then on Thanksgiving the fellowship organized a holiday meal for 60 people. “The Petersons were very helpful in that,” says Cobb, “since they were on site.”

“We cooked eight turkeys and had more pies than we could count,” she adds. “The feeling you get from helping people who desperately need help is so worth it, it gives me goose bumps. On Thanksgiving day a lady looked up at me when I brought her a cup of coffee and said, ‘You know, it’s been a long time since anyone has waited on me.’”

Cobb estimates that the fellowship spent more than $1,500 buying food and other supplies. “There are a lot of people in that park who are in bad shape,” she says. “Our goal is to help get them out of those trailers.” The Petersons stayed at the park about three weeks before heading for Arizona on December 7.

In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, UUs still have little time to pause and reflect on the hurricane season. They’re too busy caring for some of the thousands of displaced New Orleaneans who are living there either temporarily or permanently.

In December the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge, which has fielded calls from UUs across North America wanting to help, began a search for two staff members for a one-year special ministry. A full-time community minister and a half-time volunteer coordinator will match UU volunteers to relief work opportunities and community groups that work for social justice in housing, employment, relocation, and the rebuilding of New Orleans. The positions are being funded by the Gulf Coast Relief Fund cosponsored by the UUA and the UU Service Committee. More information about these one-year positions is on the church website, www.peacestones.org. You may also contact the church at (225) 926-2291.

“Our personal exhaustion goes in waves,” says the Rev. Steve Crump, minister of the Baton Rouge congregation. “Our folks are anxious to get these two positions filled. We have UUs who want to come help but we need to coordinate that.”

Here and there are success stories from the folks who had to leave New Orleans. Yvonne Biesel, who had been working as a laboratory technician at Tulane University in New Orleans, lost all her possessions and her job due to Katrina. She found another research position--but it required her to move to Long Island, New York. Her new boss happened to be a member of First Universalist Church of Southold, on Long Island. As a result, Biesel is living rent-free in a small house the church owns. She also has the use of a car. Biesel is expecting to move to a smaller place and the congregation anticipates hosting a hurricane-displaced family.

“This was a chance for us to make a difference in the world,” says the Rev. Beth Marshall. “Our goal was to make a homey nest so that people could recover and get back on their feet.”

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