They came bearing claw hammers, power saws, bubble levels and L-squares.
And they kept on coming.
The overwhelming response of North Carolina’s churches to Hurricane Katrina still resonates today, a decade after the once-in-a-century storm soaked and battered the Gulf Coast.
“That was our most ongoing project as far as disaster relief,” said Jeff Roberts, senior pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Raleigh. “We parked our disaster relief trailer there and had teams going back and forth. We had at least 100 people involved, some going multiple times, and we had one volunteer stationed there full-time.”
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Triangle congregations sent hundreds of parishioners to clean up, build, feed and console. Churches set up operations in Louisiana and Mississippi, rotating mission workers in and out for months.
Some congregants put their lives on hold to dedicate months to the recovery effort. At least one Triangle church has sent mission workers back to the Gulf each year since 2005.
It’s not uncommon for churches to respond to disaster relief in far-flung parts of the world with donations and volunteers. For many of the faithful, performing physical labor in times of adversity is as important as prayer and worship.
But veterans of the Katrina disaster relief work say the intensity, duration and scale of their efforts in Louisiana and Mississippi were unprecedented for their congregations and for them personally. They took off time from their office jobs and gave up summer vacations and spring breaks to sleep on cots, eat in mess halls and spend their days sawing, hammering, drilling and painting.
“We pay our own way, and we don’t receive any compensation for it,” said Greg Riggs. “It’s an emotional time. You see people who lost everything, and you get to know them. Your heart pours out for them.”
Riggs, 62, a retired general contractor in Durham County, arrived in Mississippi two days after the storm. He estimates he traveled to the region at least 15 times in the 2 1/2 years after Katrina. He once spent six weeks on a construction project in the Gulf Coast and dedicated a total of five months to volunteering and ministering.
A member of Rose of Sharon Baptist Church in Durham, Riggs operated a skid loader, wielded a chain saw and served as a construction foreman. He has since visited several times with Gulf Coast residents he befriended on his tour of duty and stays in touch by phone several times a month with a couple in their 90s whose home he helped rebuild.
Churches don’t have a monopoly on good works, and congregations from around the country shared duties in Katrina-battered communities with Habitat For Humanity, nonprofit relief organizations and government programs.
And while it’s hard to come by statistics on North Carolina’s contribution to church relief efforts, there are indicators the state’s efforts had a major impact. N.C. Baptist Men, the relief arm of the N.C. Baptist Convention, rebuilt 726 homes and did recovery work on about 500 damaged homes, said Riggs, former state recovery coordinator for the group.
North Carolina Methodist churches supplied more volunteers in Mississippi than any state but Pennsylvania, said Bishop Hope Morgan Ward of the denomination’s Raleigh Episcopal Area. Ward was bishop in Mississippi at the time of the disaster and was directly involved in recovery efforts.
Ward attributed North Carolina’s well-coordinated church response to expertise gained from dealing with Hurricanes Floyd and Fran. She said that experience created the infrastructure and logistical know-how required to coordinate Katrina-caliber relief projects.
The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness in 2006 honored the City of Raleigh and Wake County with the agency’s “Home for Every American” award in recognition of local assistance provided to evacuees who relocated here. Catholic Charities and Lutheran Family Services helped organize more than 600 volunteers to secure housing, clothing and transportation for 192 displaced people.
The Support Circle program, as the Triangle undertaking was called, did not fade with Katrina. It has continued operations and has collaborated with 13 denominations to help provide permanent housing to 361 people over the past decade.
First Presbyterian Church in Raleigh was one of 17 congregations and universities that deployed teams to the Gulf Coast as part of a program there called Rebuilding Hope in New Orleans, or RHINO. The Raleigh congregation has sent volunteers every year, most recently in January; the missionaries have had to wear hazmat suits and mold-filtering masks for some assignments.
“Some people don’t realize that, 10 years later, we’re still recovering,” said RHINO coordinator Caroline Cottingham in New Orleans. “There are still some neighborhoods that are only 40 to 50 percent inhabited, and still places where the families rely on a food bank to feed their children.”
Mike Austin, 65, a retired Progress Energy engineer, has participated in every New Orleans mission trip with First Presbyterian. Austin’s volunteer tasks have traced the recovery arc from gutting homes, to building homes, and finally to planting community gardens.
“We went from deconstructing homes to constructing homes,” Austin said.
The Kirk of Kildaire in Cary sent congregants to the Gulf Coast for about six years. Stephanie Arnold Workman, the Presbyterian church’s associate pastor for Christian nurture and mission, said that in 2006, the congregation established a mission project to pay school tuition and provide health clinics for residents of Palá, a remote mountain village in Guatemala.
There would likely have been no Guatemala without Katrina, she said.
“The experience in New Orleans allowed us to go to Guatemala,” Workman said. “It gave our people the experience to plan and work on a mission project.”
Staff writer Martha Quillin contributed.