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Jim Whitmer/Southern Baptist Disaster Relief

Local labors

Disaster | A nationwide outpouring is helping hurricane-ravaged Texas, but a lot of help is also coming from within the Lone Star State

Issue: "Four horsemen of the apocalypse," Oct. 4, 2008

When a Category 5 hurricane hit Texas, killing 58, Cameron Byler and Bob Dixon of Texas Baptist Men (TBM) set up "buddy-burners" in the back of a pickup truck and began serving hot food. The year was 1967, the storm was Hurricane Beulah, and Byler and Dixon were the first Southern Baptist disaster relief team. Byler later coordinated Baptist volunteers in different states to form Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, forging a Southern Baptist partnership with the American Red Cross.

Forty-one years after Beulah, Texas has seen an outpouring of support from across the nation in the wake of Hurricanes Gustav and Ike. But it helps that the state already has a solid network of faith-based organizations, including faith-based disaster relief organizations. Joe Conway, public relations officer for Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, said, "Texas has the volunteers, history, and infrastructure to give it a strong disaster relief network."

On Aug. 30, TBM deployed to help evacuees from Hurricane Gustav, preparing 15,000 meals for evacuees and volunteers by Sept. 1. On Sept. 17, over 1,000 TBM volunteers served 155,000 meals to people in Texas. Over 100 volunteers provided 1,300 showers and did 457 loads of laundry. As of Sept. 17, of the 31 Southern Baptist units in Texas, three were Southern Baptist of Texas and 16 were Texas Baptist Men.

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Conway notes that almost every community in Texas has a Southern Baptist Church. These churches form a tight network that helps relief volunteers find the people who need aid. Baptist and other churches also serve as aid centers, creating makeshift shelters and taking in hundreds of evacuees.

The churches also aid national organizations. Casey Calamusa, a spokesman for World Vision, said World Vision had a good response to its call for local Dallas volunteers: "We have had pastors come out and people from the congregation, all looking to serve. We are extremely thankful for the faith community in Dallas and the boon that they have been to World Vision's relief efforts." On Sept. 16, World Vision sent out 1,000 hygiene kits that Dallas volunteers helped assemble, with an additional 1,000 hygiene kits on the way.

Texas also has a statewide network to coordinate faith-based volunteers. OneStar Foundation: Texas Center for Social Impact helps coordinate donations, relief efforts, and Texas' Faith-Based and Community Initiative. Through its website, TexasResponds.org, disaster response organizations can publicize their needs and donors can respond with specific donations. This minimizes unnecessary donations and helps organizations get exactly what they need.

OneStar emergency management coordinator Kelley Adams also works with the State Operations Center. It's an important networking role, she said: "It allows you to literally be coordinating disaster relief efforts next to state agencies and voluntary organizations. Despite the stress of the situation, we build rapport and trust through disasters, because we know that we're really all in it together to help get people on the road to recovery."

This includes non-Christian organizations like Mormon Helping Hands, which has over 700 Texas Mormons helping to provide food boxes, water, hygiene kits, cleanup kits, and roof tarps. Houston also has an interfaith coordinator for disaster relief, Jennifer Posten, who helps the faith-based community teach its members about disaster preparedness and prepare their own houses of worship for disaster.

The strong local infrastructure should help combat "hurricane fatigue," with national volunteers spread thin. Local churches can also follow up on the relationships forged by national organizations. As of Sept. 17, in its work for both Gustav and Ike, Southern Baptist Disaster Relief had made over 1,000 chaplaincy contacts and over 11,000 ministry contacts and had heard 96 professions of faith.

The volunteer efforts in Texas also drew some official recognition. U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, called the response of local churches and Baptist men "an incredible outpouring" during a Sept. 17 speech to Congress: "There are so many good things happening."

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