Pastor Dan O’Deens of Gateway Community Church in Parkesburg, Pennsylvania, played a key role from the start in the Grace Brethren response to Hurricane Katrina. As our “point man on the ground,” he recruited, trained, and deployed managers recruited from all over the Fellowship. This is an edited version of a first-person report he recently gave to his church. It is long, but it is very worthwhile reading.
Hurricane Katrina had hit. The worst disaster on American soil in our history. My heart was pulled toward the people–I knew their need was great. What does anyone do when 1.3 million people are displaced overnight?
Shortly after the hurricane hit I was on the phone with each of our Elders, letting them know my heart and asking them to free me to go down and serve in this very needy crisis. I was so thankful for our men, who immediately said, go…yes, that IS our mission.
In less than an hour I had my plane reservation and was headed to Houston. The Baton Rouge airport was not functioning, so all Red Cross National Disaster responders were flown into Houston.
The Astrodome was already full to capacity and then some. I went through an orientation and was deployed to Baton Rouge. We rented a car and drove 5+ hours to Baton Rouge, The American Red Cross Headquarters for Louisiana.
As I walked into headquarters I knew I would then receive my assignment. This would prove to be the most difficult decision I would make, but also the best. Just a month prior I had secured my ERV license and training with the Red Cross (Emergency Rescue Vehicle – The Red/White Red Cross Trucks).
I could have at that moment been assigned to drive the ERV’s into New Orleans giving food to those who were still stranded. There was a big part of me that wanted to do that. I had already prayed and asked God to give me the greatest opportunity to influence people for Him and help as many people as I could.
Going Where the People Are
The other choice was go where the people were. Very few people were still in the city. Most of the residents had been bussed up north and to bordering states. I knew I needed to be where the people were.
Leadership was needed, so I stepped up to the plate and said I could manage a shelter. Immediately I was deployed to Shreveport. I am so grateful that I did not know that Shreveport was another five-hour drive to the northwest part of the state. It was like God’s call to Abraham. He said go, Abraham said where? God said, I will tell you when you get there.
I showed up in Shreveport at about 11 p.m. I was already dog-tired from flying and driving. I met a wonderful elderly lady who was a volunteer with the NWLA Red Cross Chapter and she set me up with sleeping arrangements and told me to be back in the morning by 7:30.
When I arrived the next morning this same lady said, “I have been thinking about you all night. I don’t want you to go to one of our shelters, I think we need someone like you to stay here and organize our efforts.” She then told me about the Executive Director of the Northwest Louisiana Region. She said she needed to talk with him. I told her that I was here to serve.
By the next day I had won the confidence of the Director of the Region. His staff was in a position of great need. The day of the hurricane their full-time staff person over “disasters” quit her job and took off. The following week the full-time employee overseeing all their local volunteers had also resigned.
In two days’ time I was running the daily operations in his office, overseeing his staff and beginning to put a plan together to help these people. When I arrived I began to organize our seven official Red Cross Shelters. We had three Civic Center Arenas, two universities and two churches. Those shelters held 7,000 people.
In a normal Red Cross “shelter” the Red Cross provides sheltering and food. This disaster would require much more. In essence, we would build temporary city/communities. We had to work with school systems to enroll all the children from New Orleans into a new district. That also required logistics including the bussing of children to and from our shelters to school.
We had to set up job placements. We had to enroll all the people in the shelter and get that on the web so lost family members could find them. Of course we had to work out the logistics for feeding over 7,000 people three meals each day. We had to provide security, using the National Guard and local law enforcements.
I also had to develop the plan that would staff all these shelters. We set up a phone bank and started calling all the locals and assigned them to shift work. Gradually I was given some relief with DSHR’s. (National Red Cross Disaster Service Human Resources).
When I arrived there were fewer than five trained Red Cross workers and over 7,000 people in our shelters. I had to find lodging for them and transportation to get them from their hotels to the shelters. I had to secure vehicles and forms of communication.
In total we had now acquired 25,000 evacuees in my territory. These were little churches and homes of refuge.
‘We Needed Leadership badly’
We needed leadership badly. I called down to HQ’s earlier in the day and asked for 21 shelter manager types. They told me what I already expected–pretty much anyone we send you will be a newbie, who signed up with the Red Cross the day before yesterday! I immediately responded by saying, “I have to have good management. Since everyone else is new, can I go outside the box and recruit some executive managers of colleges and business and national organizations, bring them here and train them and deploy them?” He said, “Do what you need to do.”
I called Dave Guiles, our Director of International Missions, and said, “You have a program called ‘Rapid Deployment.’ Do you mean it?” Then next day I had 14 men ready to serve. I trained them in Red Cross procedures, gave them an overview of the shelters they would be leading, and sent them out.
Over the next two days I would receive over 200 national Red Cross volunteers. All of them needed to be trained and oriented. I did all that training. By this time I had identified a very competent staff for our Operations Center.
Our objective was singular…find these evacuees a home so that we no longer needed to be sheltering. We had now organized T1 lines and communications with Chamber of Commerce people and had a job assistance and relocation program. We had organized programs allowing church groups and individuals to come in and take people all over the United States to relocate them.
I had worked out a plan to start consolidating our seven shelters into one. By the time I left, we were down to three shelters, one in each region and fewer than 450 people in our shelters. That was before Hurricane Rita.
As I was leaving, the shelter populations in Southern Louisiana were being shipped up to the Northwest and all the Hurricane Rita people would soon be making their way to our shelters. A system was in place and operational to accommodate the masses of people. All of our hotels, vehicles, and vendors had been approved for National Billing with FEMA and Red Cross.
I woke up one morning in a sweat, realizing I had been entrusted a great stewardship. I was responsible with making decisions that would result in hundreds of millions of dollars of expenditures. That God would put me in that position was mind-boggling. He put me there and He enabled me to make decisions. I am so grateful that I could rely on Him and know that you were here praying for me.
Preparation is the Key
I would never have had this opportunity had I not prepared. Preparation is one of the greatest keys to both opportunity and influence. Shortly after 9-1-1 I decided that the Red Cross was the organization that would best prepare me to serve during national disasters. I filled out an application and began to take all the courses necessary to be able to be deployed.
There were times during that training that I thought…so much training…so little time doing what I am being trained for? But game day always comes. A few weeks ago…game day came! And the Lord put me in the game!
Why get involved? Because to whom much is given much is required. Jesus said, “I did not come to be served but to serve!” Serving is a privilege and when you serve, you lead. We get involved because Christianity is not a spectator sport. We all are called to be in the game.
For God so loved the world…that he “gave.” If I want to be like Jesus, I have to love the people of this world. The essence of that love is giving. True Christianity is not only the Written Word…It is the Living Word. People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.
I often had to remember the hat I wore. As I changed hats I was so glad that I did not ever have to change who I was. There were many times I had to encourage our over-zealous brothers who wanted to proselytize rather than serve. I had to remind them that our mission with the Red Cross was to serve these people.
My chaplain’s hat was most evidenced by reminding people where we draw the strength to get the job done and Who gives us the daily wisdom and direction. When we serve people they see Jesus. There were plenty of opportunities to name Jesus.
There were also plenty of opportunities to roll up my sleeves and do the hard work of whatever needed to be done at the moment. Christianity is NOT a hat we wear. It is who we are. I am IN Christ. When we respond knowing that, we flesh out our Christianity in a way stronger than we might imagine.
Tomorrow this CRISIS will be over…and we will get back to normal…but all over the world, people experience CRISIS just like this. Let’s be a church that does not become complacent. Let’s keep up God’s work serving others every day. It is the most Christian work that we can do!