Hurricane relief lessons learned

Parish Diary

Fr. Peter Daly

September 17, 2007


            Our parish is making it sixth mission trip to the Mississippi Gulf coast since Hurricane Katrina.

            Here are a few of our lessons learned over the last two years.

            First, capitalize on the moment. When Hurricane Katrina hit it was all over the news. It was on everybody’s mind. The Sunday afterward, we did not take up our regular parish collection. . Instead we took up a collection only for hurricane relief.  Making a sacrifice said these people have needs greater than our own. We got more than $20,000 that day alone. Over the next year we would collect another $85,000.

            Second, make a contact on the ground in the area of need. Right after Hurricane Katrina hit I heard a priest, Fr. Richard Wagner, SSJ, on NPR. I called him up and asked what we could do. It was the beginning of a great relationship. He directed us to where help was really needed.

            Third, do what the local people say is needed, not what you think is needed. Fr. Wagner told us the immediate needs for gift cards so families could buy necessities. We bought thousands of dollars of them and sent them to pastors in the hurricane affected areas.

            Fourth, establish a long term personal relationship and tell people you are with them for the long haul. This is the most important lesson learned.

            Fr. Wagner put us in touch with eighty six year old Fr. Bart Endslow, SSJ, at Our Mother of Mercy parish in Pass Christian, MS. It was perfect fit. Their need matched our capabilities.

            The rectory had floated away in the storm surge. The church and school were ruined. But they were still there. Over the last two years we have built not just buildings but a relationship. We have come to know the parishioners in Mississippi as our friends. They are part of our extended family. It is like being home. Sending aid to them is not like writing a check to some relief organization. It is like helping your own family.

            Fifth, get people who know what they are doing and send them down in advance to scope out the work.  Before we sent any volunteer team to the Gulf Coast, four of us made an advance trip. We took a home builder, an electrician, the manager of our buildings and grounds, and me. We met identified a doable project. We decided we could put a roof on the school building. We figured out the costs, the tools and the time. A month later we were back with the people, tools, and supplies we needed. It was a success.

            Unlike some volunteer groups we were not riding around looking for a job to do. We were not showing up with the wrong tools or the wrong skill set in volunteers.

            All the subsequent volunteer trips were similarly advanced. When we need windows we sent down our project manager, Jack McFadden, and a window manufacturer, Paul Jenkins. Each subsequent trip was carefully advanced.

            It is worth a few hundred dollars in airfare to save a disasterous experience for the volunteers on an unplanned trip.

            Seventh, keep the parish fully informed. We make periodic reports to our parish of our progress. We honor the volunteers that go to Mississippi. We bring back photos and display them in church and on our web site. So when we ask for more money, people give it willingly.

            Finally, make it a spiritual relationship. That is difference between us and FEMA.  Every Sunday we pray for our sister parish in Mississippi. We call them on the phone. We invite them to our parish events. That is what it means to be communion of saints.

            Hurricane Katrina caused terrible suffering, but in the next disaster, we know how we will get involved.

            Our parish experience in disaster relief has been a real blessing.