NORMAN PARK — With the historic exception of one group of strangers as opined by Aunt Pittypat – “Yankees in Georgia … how did they ever get in?” – Georgians have long welcomed people seeking shelter and assistance.
Perhaps that was never more demonstrated than 12 years ago this week as the state opened its arms to an estimated 300,000 Hurricane Katrina evacuees. They flooded into the state as what was known as the largest mass migration since the Civil War. About 10,000 eventually put down roots in their adopted state after that September 2005 experience
Some arrived with family cars loaded with limited possesions, others with only the clothes on their backs as they were plucked from rooftops in flooded neighborhoods.
It was also Georgia Baptists’ perfect hour as chartered buses drove through the night, depositing 260 at the Georgia Baptist Conference Center at Norman Park, which quickly reached capacity. Long-planned conferences had been cancelled at least through mid-October until evacuees could be moved into more permanent housing by FEMA representatives.
Tired evacuees told The Index that they got on the bus in New Orleans, not knowing where they were going but just glad to be going. For hours the buses pushed northeast, heading to the unknown beacon offering food, a warm cot, telephones, and replacement clothing for all they wore on their backs.
When asked where they were going, one bus driver told them, “I’m taking you to paradise because you’ve already been to hell.”
They arrived with nothing. No diapers, medicine, no clothes. But one of the most important gifts was being able to sit in front of televisions for hours to watch the unfolding drama of those not fortunate enough to make the trip. Friends and neighbors remained behind, still stranded in rising waters, many clinging to life on their rooftops, hoping for a passing boat or helicopter to pluck them from sudden death.
Churches statewide seized on the ministry opportunity, opening gyms and fellowship halls and Sunday School rooms to Red Cross cots and feeding units who delivered hot meals to the famished.
The association camp at Flint River near Griffin accepted 45 evacuees over the Labor Day weekend and was expecting to reach capacity of 160 later that week. The camp had offers of help from 400 volunteers from most of the 51 churches in Flint River and neighboring associations.
Responding to a statewide appeal from Georgia Baptist Convention Executive Director J. Robert White, churches took up emergency offerings on Labor Day Weekend. But the traditionally slow attendance Sunday did not stop churches such as First Thomasville from digging deep.
Churches responded to Labor Day offering for disaster relief
“Our people had no warning that we were going to take up a special offering for Georgia Baptist Disaster Relief, so we didn’t know how they would respond,” said then-pastor Dan Spencer.
“We took the offering – while I secretly hoped that it would not negatively affect the giving to our budget – and were very surprised on Tuesday, after the holiday, when we counted slightly more than $51,000 donated in cash and checks.
“And, to my personal embarrassment, we easily met our operating budget offering. The Lord really taught me a lesson that day.”
Martha Fox, a member of Calvary Baptist Church in Tifton, was an example of Georgia Baptist laity who gave of themselves through the disaster.
While sizing shoes for evacuees in the Norman Park gym, Fox told The Index how she was a product of Georgia Baptist’s love and felt it was time to share that love with others.
“I was raised at the Children’s Home in Baxley from age 4 to 17 and will always appreciate what they did for me and my brother. Georgia Baptists paid for all of us to attend college right here when the campus was known as Norman Park Junior College.”
During that turbulent month, Georgia Baptists were serving on two fronts … ministering to evacuees who have come to them and then through disaster relief teams who were serving those left behind. All told:
- 110,000 meals were served;
- 250+ homes had storm debris removed in Lucedale and Pascagoula, MS, and Georgia;
- 2,200 volunteer days were service in Lucedale and Pascagoula, MS as well as West Wego LA;
- 23 Georgia Baptist Disaster Relief units, or 100 percent, were mobilized to serve in Georgia and the Gulf Coast.
It was the largest deployment of units since 100 percent were mobilized in 1992. That was when units were activated to serve in south Florida in the wake of Hurricane Andrew, the most destructive storm on record prior to Katrina.
First Hurricane Katrina, then Hurricane Rita
While Norman Park was inundated with guests from the Gulf Coast, the conference center at Toccoa was on standby but not used for two weeks. That’s when Hurricane Rita smashed ashore in the same general area as Katrina, hampering recovery efforts and causing $12 billion in damage – still a fraction of Katrina’s $108 billion.
State missionary Bill Wheeler, who also serves as director of the Toccoa facility, remembers those days like they were yesterday.
As evacuees were once again distributed throughout the state, Toccoa was designated as a Special Needs Shelter by the Red Cross. That meant those coming to north Georgia were residents of retirement homes or low income areas with higher percentages of physical or mental needs.
“That situation flavored how we served them and how it affected our day-to-day operations with other conferences that were still being held. We had a tremendous outpouring of volunteers and resources from our churches and communities during the 30 days they were with us,” he explains.
“With that demographic in mind, we decided to model their experience after a summer camp. We had about 30 guests so we provided daily Bible study, devotions, fishing at the lake, a time for testimonies and sharing of life experiences. We even published a daily newsletter to keep them up-to-date with events of the day, such as when the shuttle bus to Walmart was departing or when the clinic was open to pick up meds.”
Pastors would drop by for counseling, WMU and other groups provided women’s crafts classes, and churches would provide a barbeque down by the lake. The health department set up a fully stocked clinic that operated 24/7 until everyone was settled and then operated regular office hours.
“There were lots of opportunities to share the gospel and the love of God. We had a captive audience so we just loved on them and let Him do His work,” Wheeler adds. There were three professions of faith and other decisions.
“It was a unique experience that I have not forgotten in my 21 years of service here at Toccoa,” Wheeler says.
He is hoping that last week’s Hurricane Harvey in the Gulf – which slammed Houston – and this weekend’s landfall of Hurricane Irma in Florida – will not repeat itself. Both are Category 5 storms and are breaking all records for strength and damage.
But Wheeler knows that Georgia Baptists are ready to respond if needed.