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PDA and Hurricane Katrina: in it for the long run

1.2 million volunteer hours in, Presbyterians still going to Gulf region

April 17, 2009

LOUISVILLE

Nearly four years after Hurricane Katrine struck the Gulf Coast, Presbyterians continue to travel to the region in unprecedented numbers to aid with long-term recovery efforts, according to figures released this week by Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.

“Presbyterians understand the need for long-term recovery efforts,” PDA Coordinator Randy Ackley told the Presbyterian News Service in an April 16 interview. “Most NGOs (non-governmental organizations) provide extensive short-term relief but just don’t stick around for the long-term,” said Ackley, who has many years experience in the field, having served with the American Red Cross before joining PDA last year.

“Thank God there are those, like the PC(USA), who understand that needs last far beyond three-to-six months,” he added. “It’s the faith-based organizations that stick around, and that needs to be celebrated.”

Since Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005, PDA has received $24.8 million in relief and recovery contributions. Total income has been $28.4 million from all sources.

More than $18 million of that has been spent to date and Ackley said the remainder has been “completely budgeted out” between now and 2011. The use of all funds along the Gulf is the result of close consultation and covenant agreements between PDA and the affected presbyteries, particularly the Presbyteries of South Louisiana and Mississippi.

And PDA could use more. “There’s way more need still on the Gulf than we can afford,” Ackley said. “Of course, there are other partners down there so we’re not alone, but ask anybody — the PC(USA) is sending people and money to the places where they’re most desperately needed.

A hallmark of PC(USA) efforts on the Gulf Coast is the network of PDA “Volunteer Villages” — self-sufficient encampments where volunteers sleep and eat while working in the affected communities. The idea for volunteer villages arose in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, when volunteers wanting to go the Gulf found it difficult to find adequate places to stay amid the devastation.

Eight villages have operated in the four years of PDA’s presence along the coast. They housed 1,384 volunteers during the four months of 2005 after the hurricane hit, and 7,964 in 2006, 4,444 in 2007, and 3,973 in 2008.

PDA’s volunteer villages have generated more than $1.5 million in user fees that have gone to further relief and recovery efforts and have enabled Presbyterian volunteers to contribute more than 1.2 million hours of labor to date. “And that’s just Presbyterians that came through the villages,” Ackley said, noting that many other Presbyterian work groups made their own arrangements.

One group from New Jersey that calls itself “The Merry Muckers” has made 17 trips to the Gulf coast and now some of its members stay with families whose homes they have helped restore.

That kind of relationship building is priceless, Ackley said. “I have never heard anyone say, ‘They should be grateful for all we’re doing for them.’ It’s always about how much more they get out of their volunteer service than what they put in,” he said. “You simply cannot put a value on the witness to Jesus Christ that comes from the work done and the relationships established.

“And the people down there get it,” he added.

While support for the Hurricane Katrina effort has remained solid for almost four years now, the same is not true for those to the west who were victimized last fall by the equally devastating Hurricane Ike. Less than $275,000 has been received by PDA for that effort.

Ackley attributes the slow response to two factors: Hurricane Ike struck along the Texas Gulf coast just as the global economic meltdown was taking full force. And the hurricane hit as the U.S. election race was heating up.

“Unfortunately, if these disasters don’t make the front page — or don’t stay on the front page long enough for people to fully grasp the magnitude of the disaster — then agencies like PDA don’t see a response sufficient to meet the need,” he said.

Click here for more information about PDA’s Hurricane Ike response.

Click here for more information about the ongoing response to Hurricane Katrina.

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