Even before Hurricane Gustav rolled over parts of Cajun country, Christian aid groups were rolling to the rescue. A convoy of two disaster relief trucks, plus other support vehicles, departed Samaritan's Purse headquarters in North Carolina for Louisiana on Sept. 1. Samaritan's Purse president Franklin Graham prayed with the group before they left, saying, "Be the hands and feet of Jesus."
The Salvation Army, North American Mission Board, and Operation Blessing International were among the faith-based groups that pre-staged aid supplies and volunteers in counties Gustav threatened.
Nearly 2 million people fled the Louisiana coast in advance of Gustav, including about 95 percent of New Orleans' residents. Though storm damage paled in comparison to Katrina, the apocalyptic storm that ravaged the state in 2005, Gov. Bobby Jindal still declared Gustav "a very, very serious storm that's caused major damage in our state."
The storm tumbled trees, sheered off roofs, shut down some water and sewage systems, and knocked out power to more than 1.4 million residents. Also, Gustav destroyed as much as half of Louisiana's $600 million annual sugar cane crop, according to the state's agriculture and forestry department.
On Sept. 2, President Bush declared 34 counties eligible for federal disaster assistance. The same day, Samaritan's Purse arrived in Baton Rouge and rural Donaldsonville, La., with two "disaster-relief units," specially built rolling command centers outfitted to help residents repair storm damage. Baton Rouge shelters had taken in about 7,000 evacuees, said Luther Harrison of Samaritan's Purse.
Tree damage is a significant problem in the area. That may not sound like much. But it is for some folks, Harrison said, such as the elderly, or people without chainsaws and the know-how to perform the skilled and sometimes dangerous work of felling unsafe trees.
"That's where the Christian churches can help," Harrison said. "You come alongside people, help them clean up the mess, and it gives them a fresh outlook on life."
Samaritan's Purse relief workers on Sept. 2 began assessing damage and meeting with local officials and church leaders. "It's all about building relationships and connecting storm victims with resources that are already in the area," Harrison said. "We're going to pack up one day and leave. We want people to be able to get help, both materially and spiritually, after we're gone."
World Vision's relief teams on Sept. 1 began delivering aid to evacuees in Dallas and Jackson, Miss. "On the Dallas side, our focus has been helping volunteers from local churches connect with evacuees," said World Vision's Rachel Wolff. "In Jackson, there are folks who came in who did have significant needs. We found that they tended to be lower-income families. The greatest need has been baby items-formula, diapers, clothing."
The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency reported that at least 20 people were rescued from flood waters as Gustav swept through. About 14,500 people took refuge in shelters across the state, with thousands more checking into hotels. On Sept. 3, charter buses began taking some evacuees home. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour has asked President Bush to declare 16 counties federal disaster areas.
In Bay St. Louis, Lagniappe Presbyterian Church opened its doors to 130 National Guard soldiers, part of a force of thousands of military personnel and police deployed to guard evacuees' homes and businesses during their absence. Also a certified Red Cross shelter, the church dispatched people to assess damage in the area, which Pastor Jean Larroux called "limited," such as missing roof shingles and minor flooding.
That's in stark contrast to the devastation left in Hurricane Katrina's wake three years ago. After that storm, 80 percent of Bay St. Louis' housing was uninhabitable, as was every government building. "When I drove down the street five days after Katrina, I was driving past pickup trucks with bodies hanging out of the back," said Larroux, whose aunt and uncle drowned in the storm. "There were bodies hanging in the trees."
Hurricane Gustav, a comparative kitten, nevertheless tore the scabs off the psychological wounds Katrina inflicted on Bay St. Louis residents. "Hurricanes and storms to this community right now are incredibly demoralizing," Larroux said.
For example, some area families had, only the week before Gustav, finished repairing Katrina's damage. On Sept. 2, they came home to two feet of flood-water in their homes.
"That's not enough to destroy your house," Larroux said. "But at this point, it's just about enough to make you want to throw up your hands and walk away."
Katrina also subtly twisted the community's attitude about what constitutes storm damage.
"It's kind of sad," Larroux said. "In a normal neighborhood, everyone would rally around someone with half their roof blown off. But since Katrina, we slap a blue tarp on it and consider them fine. If you're not duct-taping your refrigerator shut and pitching it out the front door, we consider you to have no damage."
Like many Americans following Hurricane Katrina, members of Keith Thode's Grapevine, Texas, church wanted to head down to New Orleans to help. Problem was, they didn't know exactly what kind of help was needed, and no one wanted to create what has been called "the secondary disaster"-herds of well-meaning soccer moms bearing bags of donated clothes when what is needed are chainsaw operators and clean drinking water.
Soon, though, Thode's church learned that 400 storm evacuees had taken refuge in a hotel right in Grapevine. "Instead of piling in trucks and driving down to New Orleans, we were able to go and help those people in a meaningful way," said Thode, Chief Operating Officer of the AidMatrix Foundation Inc., a nonprofit that connects donors, relief workers, and people in need. "It's an example of how information flow can help connect the right resources with the right people at the right time."
AidMatrix builds and operates computer networking hubs that enable private and public donors to post aid offerings, while relief agencies and others, such as local governments, post needs. The foundation is one reason that, in the wake of Hurricane Gustav, more than $20 million in aid has flowed into the Gulf Coast area in a way much more efficient than relief efforts following Hurricane Katrina.
An example of how it works: Following massive flooding in Iowa earlier this year, Habitat for Humanity used the state's AidMatrix to post a need for carpet to replace that in homes ruined in the deluge. A California carpet manufacturer saw the need posted online and pledged a large donation. UPS signed onto AidMatrix and agreed to transport the carpet from California to Iowa. No phone calls, no red tape, and the carpet was in Iowa in less than two weeks.
Founded in 2000, AidMatrix's operations had focused on connecting thousands of corporate and nonprofit partners to deliver various kinds of aid both here and overseas. Disaster relief had been a small part of the operation. But after Katrina, an unprecedented domestic disaster, AidMatrix donated its services.
"Afterwards, FEMA and state government realized they needed this kind of national donations management network," Thode said. "A partnership with FEMA started in late 2006, and we are now in 26 states and territories."
AidMatrix is now a public/private partnership. On the public side, FEMA and state governments contribute grant money. On the private, for example, UPS donated money and experts to develop a dedicated transportation network to ferry aid from donors to relief groups on the ground.
AidMatrix's job, Thode said, "is really to make these other groups as successful as they can be."