Lessons in chaos
Wesley UMC pastor reflects on early days of shelter and realizes the operation went surprisingly smooth
Kerry Craig | News-Telegram Assistant Editor

Wesley United Methodist Church Pastor Steve Davis assumed the role of manager of the shelter for Hurricane Katrina victims. “It was certainly an incredible opportunity — an opportunity that we were not prepared for, but in other ways it showed us how prepared we were and just did not realize it.”
Staff photo by Angela Pitts

Oct. 2, 2005 -- Four weeks ago, powerful Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Central Gulf Coast, causing one of the worst disasters in American history. Some fled before the storm struck. Thousands of others were forced to take refuge from rising flood waters in the New Orleans Superdome and nearby convention center and to await transportation to a place of shelter and safety.

There were no plans for such a mass evacuation. The book has not been authored for a disaster of such vast proportions, but in the days following the storm, several chapters were written.

In the days and weeks after the storm, as many as 300 people found safe haven in Sulphur Springs and Hopkins Count, at Wesley United Methodist Church. It was the second time the church had been pressed into service as a shelter in the past five years.

As pastor of the church, the Rev. Steve Davis assumed the role of shelter manager. On the day the last of the residents were moving into more permanent housing, Davis paused to reflect and share his personal experiences of the past month.

�It was certainly an incredible opportunity -- an opportunity that we were not prepared for, but in other ways it showed us how prepared we were and just did not realize it,� he said.

Davis said there were no rules on how to set up and manage a shelter under the circumstances and for such an extended period of time, nor were there instructions as to how to meet the many needs of the people that would make the church their home.

�There is a great deal we learned by trial and error, and we figured out how to make it a little better,� Davis said. �Thankfully, a lot of the things we did worked the first time, and we are grateful for that.�

Jo Marie Neal of the Salvation Army and Sulphur Springs Emergency Management Coordinator Rex Morgan worked with Pastor Davis in operating the shelter and were assisted by doctors, nurses and paramedics, as well as firefighters and law enforcement officers from throughout Hopkins County.

Within 24 hours from the time Wesley Church was notified it had been placed on standby to receive evacuees, things began to happen quickly.   

�I think one of the amazing things for us was on that Sunday night when the alert came to us and we were told we would be on standby, and Monday was the day we were activated as a shelter,� the pastor said. �By the end of the first day, we had 31 people.�

As shelter manager, Davis was closely involved with many of the people who were staying there. In the first few days, with just a few people there, he had opportunity to get to know some of them.

�There was one very dear couple, Freddie and Viola Washington, that became for us �Grandma� and �Grandpa,�� he said. �I did not know their names for the first 10 days or so -- they were just Grandma and Grandpa.�

The last time Wesley United was used as a shelter was during the ice storm in the winter of 2000-2001.

�It was quite a big storm, but it was a two- or three-day event, and it was over with,� he said. �We realized very quickly this was not going to be over with in short order -- this was something that was going to be much more serious with the devastation in New Orleans and the people we received.�

Not only were members of Wesley Methodist relied on heavily, the generosity of the entire community made it possible for the gifts that were shared. Every family that stayed in the shelter and later moved into more permanent housing did so with a full pantry of food donated by the community.

��It was such a joy, at that point, to be able to have such an incredible response from the community to begin with,� Davis said. �It was overwhelming for both the people we received and for us as a church family to get ourselves in gear as to how to do this.� �

�As far as I know, I believe there was only one meal that we cooked using food that was donated,� he said. �Everything else was provided by churches in the community or by businesses, organizations and civic groups that provided meals for us.�

Donations from the community quickly filled available storage space at the shelter, and other churches quickly stepped up to help with storage space and volunteers. The donations enabled the shelter to meet much more than the daily needs of the residents. 

�It really enabled us to use the resources that were given to us, not just for the shelter needs, but to really help establish these folks with a fresh start and new beginning unlike anything they had ever experienced before.�

Along with the material donations from the community, Davis said the prayers and faith of the people of the community and the willingness to step up and volunteer were major factors in the successful shelter operation.

�I have not yet counted the total number of volunteers that participated, but I can tell you it filled three 3-inch binders full of pages of volunteers that came to help,� he said. �It was really, I think, a Christian church�s finest hour -- we were not talking about being the church, we were just being the church at its very best.�

Many of those living in the shelter were more interested in what they might be able to do to assist with shelter operations rather that what the shelter would do for them.

�These were not folks that were looking for us to hand out anything to them,� Davis said. �They were just grateful for the service that was provided.�

Those first few comfortable days ended the following Saturday when word was received that as many as six bus loads of refugees were headed for Sulphur Springs. These were some of the very last people to be evacuated from New Orleans’ Superdome, and who were turned away from the Houston Astrodome and from shelters in Dallas.

And those buses would be arriving at the Wesley shelter in just over an hour.

�When we received word about their whereabouts, they were parked on the side of the interstate in Garland looking for a shelter they could be taken to,� he said. �They did not tell us the number of people that were coming. They told us the number of buses and we had to estimate the number of people that were on each bus.�

When three of the six buses pulled up in the parking lot and people began stepping down carrying the last of their belongings in plastic garbage bags, or maybe a suit case, the shelter workers began to more fully realize just how serious the situation was.

�That was probably the most stressful experience of my life,� Davis said. �Just the sheer magnitude of need that was present, it was not just about finding a place for these people to lay down -- it was recognizing where these people had been.�

The new arrivals were screened and health care providers quickly arrived at the shelter to establish a triage process to determine and identify immediate health concerns.

Their needs ranged from treatment for dehydration to diabetics that may not have had insulin shots for almost a week and those with heart problems who were forced to go without vital medications.

The new arrivals were registered in the church sanctuary and education building and then went to get a look at what was to become their new home.

�As they came around the corner, we saw people that were clutching their every last possession in life,� he said. �You saw people that were grimy, their shoes were falling apart, and their clothing was soiled and dirty from days of wear.�

As these people made their way into the shelter, Davis said, the care and support extended was “incredible to see, especially in the face of the needs you saw within their own lives.”

Understandably, some of the people were fussy and irritable after being held captive by flood waters for many days and upset at their circumstances, but much of that quickly melted away.

�You could just see this gradual transformation over a period of a few hours,� Davis explained. �You could see a transformation of their spirit, of their character and demeanor.�

A shower and fresh clothing along with a hot meal helped but could not compensate for the exhaustion brought on by the disaster. But a place to lay down and safely sleep made the difference.

�You could just see the stress and pain just washing away from so many of them,� he said. �This was the first time that many of them had really been able to lay down and know they were safe and they were going to be taken care of.�

The reaction of many of those in the shelter was inspirational to Davis and the other volunteers.

�There was a woman that was here, when she had finished the registration process, she came into the shelter area and she began to scream �My sister, my sister,�� Davis said. �We did not have any idea what had taken place, but from across the room this woman, who had been separated from her sister at the Superdome, saw her sister again. They embraced and just the absolute joy on this woman�s face was incredible.�

Another woman who had recently arrived managed to make contact with some of her family members by phone a week after being displaced by the storm.

In reassuring her family she was safe, the woman told them they would not believe the care she was receiving in Sulphur Springs.

�This is the closest thing to heaven that I have ever experienced in my life,� the woman told her family.

�Just knowing we could soften the blow in the face of this incredible catastrophe in such a way that people were able to say God was still good and they could really know, in the face of such devastation and disaster, where the worst of people could come out, they were experiencing some the best God had to offer,� Davis said.

Did the worst really come out with the refugees?

�There was no worst that came out in our experience here in the shelter,� he said. �There were a couple of folks that got cross-ways with each other, a family spat here and there, but nothing ever took place here that was ever of an upsetting nature or malicious toward anyone else.�

Davis said there were no fights and no violence at the shelter, something he found most reassuring in light of the many rumors that ran rampant in Sulphur Springs.

�There were a lot of rumors, all of which were ridiculous, really,� he said. �There were rumors there was a shooting, and that was not the case.�

The closest thing to a shooting was a young man who got off the bus with a months-old gunshot wound, and the medical teams were able to make sure he was healing well.

�When you have heard it from throughout the community before you ever hear it in the shelter, you know it was a rumor,� he said. �We really had a great group of people that were here, all things considered -- people from a variety of walks of life.�

Other rumors concerned the cash donations given to the shelter or to the Salvation Army. Those, too, were unfounded, according to an inspection by Salvation Army representatives from Dallas.

The chief financial secretary from the Dallas-area Salvation Army was called after rumors started circulating of possible mismanagement of donated funds.

�We did learn the way both groups were accounting for their funds and distributing their funds were absolutely accurate,� Davis said. �Hopefully that word got out to the rest of the community.�

Those cash donations totaled more than $100,000 by the time the shelter closed last week.

The rate at which the donations came in was overwhelming, also.

�The first days of our experience was so harried -- we had people dropping off cash money to us, and for the first four or five days we were not even giving out receipts,� Davis said. �We just took what they gave to us, and so many times we did not know who gave it, how much they gave or anything of that nature.

�The oversight that was given was that every donation that was received, even in those first few days when we were not handing out receipts, the monies we received were counted every evening so that we knew how much we had received,� Davis explained. �No money went out unless there was a receipt presented and approved and that was for both the church�s expenses and Salvation Army expenses.�

Money not used in shelter operations and in meeting needs of the temporary residents was designated to help people get back in touch with their families or to move on and get their lives re-established. 

Wesley United Methodist Church is now working to send out “thank you” messages to the community for the response that was given

�I know there are people we will end up missing, that we won�t ever be able to personally thank,� the pastor said. �I certainly want to take the opportunity through the newspaper to be able to say to those countless folks that dropped by items and donations, we want to be able to say, as a church family, how very grateful we are for the support of this community.�

During the time the shelter was in full operation, two inspectors from the Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA] stopped in for a visit and were more than just a little impressed.

�They had gone through a variety of shelters around and had been in Sulphur Springs and were in Dallas being interviewed by NBC news,� Davis said. �The comment they made was the faith-based organizations were doing such an incredible job, and they mentioned Wesley United Methodist Church in Sulphur Springs as being the best organized shelter they had seen anywhere in Texas, including Dallas.�� � � �

A common denominator among almost all of those living at the shelter at Wesley Methodist was gratitude.

�I cannot tell you how many times people shared with us how thankful they were for the meal that was provided, the clothing that was donated and resources we were giving,� he said.

Perhaps one of the guests at the shelter put it best when she said this is the greatest community she has ever experienced.

�We could not agree with her more,� Davis said. �It is a wonderful place, and the people of Sulphur Springs and surrounding communities quite literally poured their hearts out to us, and we are so grateful for that support.�

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