United Methodists mobilize to help evacuees at Astrodome
by Steve Smith
HOUSTON (UMNS) - Patricia Groves said she couldn't live with herself if she stayed inside her air-conditioned house during Labor Day weekend while so many people were suffering just across town.
A member of St. Luke's United Methodist Church in Houston, Groves was one of 1,000 or so United Methodists joining volunteers from other faith-based groups at Reliant Center, the city's massive convention and sports complex, to organize and distribute donated clothing, nonperishable food and hygiene items for hundreds of thousands of Hurricane Katrina's victims.
"I cannot sit on my you-know-what and not do anything when these people have absolutely nothing but the clothes on their backs," Groves said. "The first night I was here, I saw this 4-and-a-half-year-old running down the ramp at the Astrodome. She opened her arms, and I picked her up. She was wet, her diaper needed changing, she was dirty, but she had a smile on her face because she finally got in some place that was air-conditioned.
"Everybody was just so glad to be someplace where they could lay down because they were so exhausted."
More than 15,000 mostly African Americans packed the floor of the Reliant Astrodome, while 3,000 were staying at Reliant Arena and another 8,000 at Reliant Center, all in the same complex. Another 6,000 evacuees flooded local shelters, and the George R. Brown Convention Center and Hewlett-Packard Center also housed at least 2,000.
Another 5,000 residents from New Orleans stayed in hotels, but many were running out of money to pay for rooms and showing up at the Astrodome for help, an American Red Cross official said. Texas Gov. Rick Perry ordered state officials to plan to airlift 250,000 evacuees to other states offering help.
Most of the evacuees at the Astrodome and convention centers endured three-hour rides on chartered buses from New Orleans nearly 350 miles away, some aboard rickety school buses with no air-conditioning.
The Astrodome crowd was so large that locals referred to the former baseball and football stadium as "Dome City," a region so huge that it now had its own ZIP code (77230), police force of 160 officers, and thousands of land and cellular telephone lines. But this was a city in desperate need, and United Methodists were working around the clock to ensure evacuees don't fall through the cracks.
Four cities of cots
Under guidance from Mike Firenza, director of health, wellness and recreation at St. Luke's, and the Rev. Jason Burnham, the church's evangelism pastor, previous hurricane victims, well-paid bankers, housewives, college students, people of every race, and National Guard troops not even called into duty toiled around the clock to organize in neat piles everything from bottled water to blouses and britches, toothbrushes to Tampax, corn flakes to curling irons.
They were storing the donations in an enormous building beside the Astrodome normally reserved for horse, car and boat shows but called "the warehouse" by relief workers. Firenza and Burnham were heading the donation organization project for the United Methodist Church's Houston-based Texas Annual (regional) Conference.
Outside the warehouse, a nonstop stream of cars, SUVs, tractor-trailer trucks and pickups pulled up so volunteers could unload donations. In the blistering afternoon sun, volunteers emptied a tractor-trailer of more than 70,000 bottles of spring water, followed the next day by 2,000 hygiene kits crammed into a 24-foot-long trailer truck from Happy Discount Movers in Grapevine near Dallas.
Early Sunday morning, Sept. 4, Firenza tried to figure out where to put seven truckloads of clothes donated from "Dr. Phil" McGraw, the TV psychologist, and the J.C. Penney department store company. Oprah Winfrey also was sending truckloads of donations, Firenza added.
"We have four cities out here of cots and thousands of people," he said. "All of those people are getting clothes, getting hygiene products, water, fruit, food. They have 24-hour snacks, two hot meals a day, and sandwiches at lunch. It is going really, really well.
"I wish we had eight times the space and 20 times as many volunteers."
One of those "cities" served as a destination where evacuees received clothes, water, food, medical attention and showers before being bused to relief centers in Dallas, San Antonio and other Texas cities, as well as Ft. Bliss, Ark., where officials agreed to handle the overflow from the Reliant Center.
Compelled to help
At the warehouse, Donald Bennett, a member of St. John's United Methodist Church in Houston, said he lost nearly everything in 1983 to a hurricane, including water and electricity for two weeks, and knew he needed to help when he saw Katrina's destruction. Bennett said he unloaded trucks, moved donations into the warehouse, helped organize the operations, and performed any other task during 10-hour days.
Kathleen Buttolph spent most of Sept. 4 organizing clothes and shoes into their proper size piles in a section of a convention hall reserved for distributing donations to evacuees. Buttolph, a member of Wesley United Methodist Church in Johnson City, Tenn., had traveled to Houston late the day before for a friend's wedding.
"I couldn't help but come here," said Buttolph, as she placed a pair of children's sandals in their proper pile. "It seems like you shouldn't be doing anything else."
Next door in the warehouse, Sandi Allen of Houston's West University United Methodist Church, said she showed up at about 6 p.m. Sept. 3 and worked straight through to the following morning so she could use her gifts of "organizing and expediting" with the mountains of donations. Her work allowed Firenza to go home and get some sleep.
"I felt compelled that I need to do this," said Allen, whose voice boomed out through the cavernous warehouse as she issued directions to volunteers. "I saw that they needed logistical skills, so I kissed my husband goodbye and told him I'm going to the Dome. That was yesterday afternoon, and I'm sure he has no idea where I am."
Brenda Greenleaf, a member of Houston's Windsor Village United Methodist Church, said the church was rounding up hundreds of congregants to volunteer at one of the other convention centers. Her son, Lorenzo Morgan, flew a helicopter from Houston to New Orleans to help with rescue efforts.
"There are people who need help, and if it were me, I would certainly hope people would help my family," said Greenleaf, as she folded a pair of boy's jeans bound for the knee-deep pile in front of her. "We're going to pray and do whatever they need me to do. We're going to take the whole church over to the convention center."
A traumatized survivor
Bob Mueller, a banker and member of St. Luke's United Methodist Church, helped set up cots and distributed clothes, diapers, baby formula, food and personal hygiene items.
"One lady had just gotten here on Thursday, had been in the water for four days in New Orleans and finally was washed ashore," he said. "She was exhausted, mentally and physically. She was traumatized by the dead bodies she had run across in the water. She was filthy, and all she wanted to do was get a shower, some food and some sleep."
Joseph Guzman, a member of Christ United Methodist Church in Sugar Land, a Houston suburb, said he had worked on two flood-relief efforts when he served in the military and was considering going to Louisiana with his chainsaw to help with relief efforts.
"When we were helping people off the buses on the first night, I saw the smiles on their faces and the tears in their eyes when they saw family members they hadn't seen in five days," he said. "That's what I'm here for."
In the Astrodome, Laura Caillouet, a member of Munholland United Methodist Church in Metairie, a suburb of New Orleans, who now attends Joel Osteen's Lakewood Church in Houston, said she felt compelled to help residents of her former city. She added that family members saw their homes damaged by Katrina, but some friends lost all of their possessions.
United Methodists throughout Texas also went into action after city officials in Houston began re-routing buses packed with evacuees throughout Texas. More than 12,000 evacuees packed the floor of Reunion Arena, the former pro basketball venue in Dallas, and another 25,000 New Orleans residents stayed at the former Kelly Air Force Base and shelters in San Antonio.
Many evacuees said they were grateful for the outpouring of support from Houstonians and wished that they could repay them. Others, like Marilyn Johnson, were frantic as they combed the crowds for any sights of relatives. Many held cardboard signs on which the names of relatives and friends were scrawled in crayon, ink or black charcoal.
"I'm trying to find my brother, he's trying to find his mother, and he's trying to find his sister," said Johnson, a member of Brooks United Methodist Church in New Orleans, as family members pushed a shopping cart full of donations and two young children outside the warehouse. "The last time we saw them, they were in New Orleans trying to get out of town. We don't even know if they're here, or if they're dead back in New Orleans."
Donald Franklin, also of New Orleans, escaped the rising floodwaters by fleeing to a neighborhood school before boarding a bus bound for Houston. He said coming to Houston was almost like stepping into the Promised Land.
"I now feel like everything is going to be OK," Franklin said. "Every day, I feel better and better."
*Smith is a freelance writer based in Dallas.