Organizing Volunteers After a 'Massive' Disaster Charities working to rebuild the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina have been forced to deal with the logistics of housing and deploying thousands of volunteers and coordinating their efforts.
NPR logo Organizing Volunteers After a 'Massive' Disaster

Organizing Volunteers After a 'Massive' Disaster

Volunteer Dalethe Pothast, from Iowa, cleans the windows of a Biloxi, Miss., home severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina. David Schaper, NPR hide caption

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David Schaper, NPR

A large shipping container is being converted into a bunkhouse for volunteers staying at Lutheran Disaster Response's "Camp Biloxi," in what had been a yard behind the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Biloxi. David Schaper, NPR hide caption

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David Schaper, NPR

A large shipping container is being converted into a bunkhouse for volunteers staying at Lutheran Disaster Response's "Camp Biloxi," in what had been a yard behind the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Biloxi.

David Schaper, NPR

Thousands of volunteers descended on the Gulf Coast to help rebuild the region after Hurricane Katrina. The scale of the destruction was so great that faith-based charities and secular groups were on their own when it came to dealing with the logistics of housing and deploying volunteers. Then the groups had to coordinate their efforts with the other volunteers who arrived to help.

Many groups say they're doing work at a level never seen within their organizations.

"This was extremely challenging," says John McRae, Mississippi coordinator for Lutheran Disaster Response, a collaboration of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod that has been responding to natural and man-made crises around the world since 1988.

McRae says that, before Katrina, LDR would come in after disasters with just a few staff members and volunteers to help with whatever was needed.

"Katrina was so massive that it took everybody by surprise, so we're becoming... a first-responder type of organization," he says.

The real first responders, McRae says, were the individual congregations on the Gulf Coast, which began doing everything they could to rescue, feed, clothe and house people immediately after the storm.

After a few weeks, as more and more volunteers began streaming in, the larger umbrella organization, Lutheran Disaster Response, took over and built a camp in Biloxi, Miss., with huge tents, trailers and RVs. Tents lacked privacy and were costly and difficult to air-condition. So LDR is now using container-trailers, similar to shipping containers, to serve as more permanent bunkhouses for the volunteers, as well as shower and bathroom facilities. And LDR has staff members on site to coordinate the feeding and sleeping arrangements for the volunteers.

A church-owned house that had been used for missionaries, and more recently a youth ministry and Sunday school, now serves as the office and headquarters for Lutheran Disaster Response on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

In the yard behind the house, all usable space has been turned into RV lots for some of the long-term volunteers and staff members. Two 48-foot-long trailers house many of the tools the volunteers use. Behind the church is a huge dining tent that can serve 160 people at a time. It's attached to a mobile kitchen trailer, and there's also a large, diesel-powered refrigerator and freezer.

Just running the camp is a mammoth effort for the faith-based group.

"Lutheran Disaster Response has responded to numerous disasters over the years, but nothing on a scale like this," says camp director John Coyle. "This is unprecedented and I think it's a challenge for the organization to kind of deal with the new issues with this large of a scale of a problem."

Retired from nearby Keesler Air Force Base, Coyle was head elder at Biloxi's Good Shepherd Lutheran Church before being pressed into service.

"I didn't know what LDR was until this happened, to be honest with you," he says. "They needed someone to organize who knew the area, someone who knew what needed to be done and I guess since I lived here and am retired from the Air Force here, I knew the area and knew the people..."

Housing and feeding hundreds of volunteers a week is a big enough problem, but these charities also have to figure out how to spend their resources and prioritize whom to help rebuild.

"We focus our effort and our work on the poorest of the poor," says McRae, the state LDR director. "And trying to help when they do not have the resources, even with insurance and FEMA dollars, those dollars are not available to them to rebuild their homes."

McRae says thousands of homeowners on the Gulf Coast are falling through the cracks and for one reason or another aren't getting insurance money or government grants to cover the cost of rebuilding. Case workers interview community residents to determine who among them are in the most dire need. Those are the homes repaired or rebuilt first.

One of the biggest concentrations of people in need is in East Biloxi, where about 70 percent of the population was low- to moderate-income, and thousands of homes were destroyed or severely damaged.

In temporary offices in a church, Biloxi City Councilman Bill Stallworth has set up a center to better coordinate the charities' rebuilding efforts. The neighborhood is divided into smaller sections, each a couple of blocks wide, in which certain charities work -- Lutheran Disaster Response here, Catholic Charities over there, etc.

The maps are color-coded, too, to indicate which houses are being worked on and what progress is being made. Blue represents homes that are completed and where residents have moved back in. Stallworth notes that there is very little blue on the map right now. He says there is an immense need for more volunteers for years to come.

"I pray to God every day that he keeps sending volunteers," Stallworth says. "Unfortunately, the news media stops covering stories like this and most of America feels, 'OK, the problem is solved. Congress appropriated [billions] so everybody's got money.' Well, nobody's got money and everybody's still out of their homes and we still need to have the volunteers."

"The volunteers have dropped off and that's a big concern," says LDR's McRae. "One of the things we need of course is volunteers to keep our operation going."

Other charities say they've noticed a decline in volunteers and financial support for the rebuilding effort. Many fear a new hurricane could divert even more attention and resources away from the need on the Gulf Coast.

For their part, a group of volunteers from three Lutheran congregations in North Central Iowa say they'll do what they can to persuade friends and neighbors to join in the effort.

Dalethe Pothast says she had no idea the impact her small act of volunteerism would have.

"The first thing I thought when I was coming down was, 'What's one person [going to] do in four days?' You know, I'm just one person in four days."

She says the bonding she had with her fellow volunteers "is amazing; we'll always have a closeness that we've never had before."