One year after the ravages inflicted by hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the Gulf Coast area is still rebuilding. Organizations from around the world have helped, and among those organizations is Santa Monica’s First United Methodist Church (FUMC).
Church member Jim Krause of Nonprofit Ventures was part of the first team sent by the Church to New Orleans last spring. He notes that, like most religious organizations, the FUMC took collections and did other forms of fundraising, but they were appalled by the “shoddy government response” to the urgent needs of hurricane survivors.
“The United Methodist organization had set up a Storm Recovery Center in each of the Gulf Coast states,” says Krause. “They partnered with a church in the Pontchartrain/Gentilly neighborhood, the Bethany First United Methodist Church. This was a church of about 850 members before the storm. 90 percent of the families lost their homes in the storm.”
The first Santa Monica team consisted of 17 members, including several of the church’s ministers, who worked to restore the Bethany church itself. Their restoration project, documented on the FUMC web site, included the installation of a new sprinkler system and beautification of the church grounds.
While the first team’s efforts gave a psychological boost to the Bethany Church congregation, the FUMC team realized that much work needed to be done to rebuild the homes of congregation members.
“We sent a second team to New Orleans in July. That happened to be our youth group. They had for years done work in the summer time in Appalachia. This was a pretty well-trained group of kids,” says Krause. In fact, these “kids” were mostly high school students, ages 15 to 18. “Because there were so many kids who wanted to go, they actually took a few 9th graders.”
Sixteen-year-old Grant Olfson, a member of the youth team, had worked on one of the Appalachian service projects, where his team’s work had been limited to rebuilding, “making things rather than tearing down – which was what we did in New Orleans.”
Working in over 90-degree, humid weather, wearing protective Tybek suits and respirators, the teens removed valuables and salvageable items found inside the houses and stripped away the damaged walls and floors. The houses, stripped down to their skeletons, were sprayed to stop further growth of mold, after which contractors were brought in to begin the process of rebuilding the houses.
“We would get in around nine in the morning and would work until about three, stopping for lunch and breaks,” says Olfson.
He recalls that the neighborhood where he worked was almost deserted. “Only a car or two would come by about once an hour. There were piles of trash outside the house that still needed to be picked up by FEMA, and it was really just completely devastated.”
Divided into two teams, the teens managed in the course of their one-week stay to gut and clean out two houses. Thanks to their respirators, the young people were not endangered by the toxins from the debris, and nobody was injured while working.
Krause says that a third team, all adults this time, is being sent on October 21st. This team will complete the Bethany Restoration project and will work on more of the storm-damaged homes. The rebuilding effort, he notes, will likely go on for years.
“We’ve made a 10-year commitment to this. We think that’s how long it’s going to take to do the kind of work that they’re going to need. In terms of the Gulf Coast itself, it will take 10 or 20 years.”
Olfson sums up his volunteer experience in this way: “Having gone to New Orleans and experiencing the people and culture, this was a big deal for me because I had never previously been to New Orleans. The people there were amazingly gratified that we were just showing up – they said ‘thank you’ for every little thing we did, even before we did anything.
“It was surprising how much hope they had in the face of all the devastation.”
Anyone interested in helping First United Methodist Church with its Gulf Coast Recovery program should contact Jim Krause (310.839.5455), Leslie Nordby (310.306.0365) or the Rev. Larry Young (310.393.8258). Donations can be made at the Church’s website, www.santamonicaumc.org. More information about the Bethany Recovery project is available at www.friendsofbethany.org.