Winter 2007 Volume 6 Number 2

Gulf Coast Recovery

Storm’s Aftermath Continues
Robbie Murden D’05, First United Methodist Church, Gulfport, Miss.
By Jonathan Goldstein

More than a year after First United Methodist Church’s majestic stained glass dome emerged unscathed from Hurricane Katrina, a full recovery for the region seems far away.

  The stained glass dome at First United Methodist Church in Gulfport, Miss.

Repairs to the church are expected to cost about $1 million, and much of the work is yet to be completed. More than 40 families from the congregation have left the area, probably for good. Average Sunday attendance has fallen from 350 before Katrina to about 220, with many parishioners who stayed in the area coming to church less and less frequently.

Associate Pastor Robbie Murden D’05 had been in his first appointment for only three months when Katrina struck Aug. 28, 2005. “This is a really tough time,” he says, the weariness evident in his voice. “There’s this kind of dampening of the spirit.”

In the storm’s aftermath, members began missing church to deal with the immediate concerns of rebuilding, says Murden. Now, some of those parishioners have not resumed regular attendance.

He often hears members of the congregation say they can’t wait for life to return to normal, but Murden suspects the community will never be the same. Too many people have moved away, too many houses have been destroyed, and too many businesses have disappeared. Casinos and expensive condominiums are springing up faster than affordable housing.

Malaise in the congregation, like in many area congregations, is difficult to overcome, Murden says.

“People aren’t happy; they’re very melancholy,” he says. “How as leaders do we reignite that spark and get them excited about coming to church and living the word of God? I think it’s going to take a while.”

An infusion of clergy with a fresh perspective would help, Murden says, adding that ministers who have served in the Gulf Coast region since the storm might benefit from transfer out of the area.

“At some point I hope the ministers who were here for the storm will move to places less affected so they can step away from Katrina,” he says. “You don’t want to dwell on Katrina, but it’s hard when you’re here all the time. We could use someone with a fresh spirit here to push forward—someone who hasn’t had that emotional drain and physical drain and spiritual drain.”

A Changed Perspective
Rachel Benefield-Pfaff D’88, Gulfport, Miss.
By Reed Criswell

  Back at Home: Ellie, 4, and the family’s border collie, Oban.

Once Rachel Benefield-Pfaff and her family finally returned to their own home seven months after Katrina, the storm continued to dominate their everyday lives.

The entire family — Rachel, husband Scott, 6-year-old Thomas, 4-year-old Ellie, and Oban the border collie — were happy to be at home, but shoddy work from the Pfaff’s original contractor continued to surface and cause problems.

Rachel, who was supervising hurricane repairs at Handsboro United Methodist Church, and Scott, a high school physics teacher, felt overwhelmed by their workloads and wanted to spend more time with their young family.

But just before she reached her breaking point, an Oregon mission team arrived at Handsboro offering to help. The team had been organized by the Rev. Colleen McClean, who served as Handsboro’s first female pastor in the mid-1980s, and later moved to Oregon.

“The grace of their work and presence gave me the deep breath I had needed,” Rachel said. “
By the time Easter arrived we were functioning in our home.”

Once repairs to the educational building at Handsboro UMC were completed, Rachel requested a family leave of absence. The church’s ministry continues with an interim pastor.

“The storm has changed our perspective,” said Rachel. “It certainly helped me to see the urgency of my children’s childhood.”

The children are well, though her 4-year-old spends more nights sleeping in her parents’ bed than before. And Oban the border collie is more spoiled than before the stormy night he huddled with the family in the attic.

Design changes have made their home more comfortable and functional, but not everything has returned to normal: they lost most of their furniture in the storm, and they are adjusting to being a one-income family.

They are settling back into life with normal day-to-day crises, said Rachel: “So we will see how this plays out.”

After the Flood, New Beginnings
Carol Burnett, Moore Community House, Biloxi, Miss.
By Bob Wells

For Moore Community House in Biloxi, 2006 was a year of brief activity and long waits, fitful starts and interminable delays, and finally, a few small steps toward recovery.

“It has been quite a year,” says the Rev. Carol Burnett, director of Moore Community House, a UMC mission agency that provides child care and other services to low income families in East Biloxi. “We’re finally making a little bit of progress and I’m feeling encouraged. It’s beginning to feel like the end of the first phase is in sight.”

  Sole Survivor: This building, the only one of eight at Moore Community House that did not have to be razed after Katrina, must be completely renovated.

Though Katrina left the program’s eight buildings standing—mostly small frame houses used for classrooms— all were flooded to the rooftops. Of those, seven were damaged beyond repair and were demolished last spring. The eighth, a former church building converted for classroom use, was gutted and has been awaiting reconstruction, pending approval of various plans and permits, with construction expected to begin late last year, says Burnett.

Plans are also underway to build an entirely new early childhood facility, fully equipped playground and new office space. But here too, the planning and approval process, cumbersome under the best circumstances, is further slowed by conditions throughout the Gulf region.

“Every time you have to get something done, whether it’s hiring an architect or a contractor and getting a building permit, everybody on the coast needs the same thing,” says Burnett. “So you take a number and stand in line.” Burnett was hoping to get final approval from the city council for the new building in December, and if so, construction will begin early this year with completion at the earliest in October.

Meanwhile, no child care has been available at Moore Community House or anywhere else in East Biloxi, and families have been making do the best they can. “We’ve always been in a position to respond before, so this has been very frustrating,” says Burnett. In January, that situation was expected to ease somewhat when Moore Community House was to begin operating an early Head Start program in leased classroom space in a recently reopened elementary school.

The entire reconstruction effort for Moore Community House is expected to cost about $1.8 million, with $1.4 raised to date.

Send contributions to Moore Community House, P.O. Box 204, Biloxi, MS 39533-0204. For more information about helping, call Burnett at (228)669-4827 or e-mail info@mchbiloxi.org.

A Calm Sadness after the Storm
Beverly Connelly D’03, Shreveport, La.
By Elisabeth Stagg

Since Hurricane Katrina, Beverly Connelly D’03 is perpetually asked : “Do you think God did this to New Orleans?”

“This is not a question I answer,” she says. “It is not a question for humankind.”

News coverage of Katrina’s first anniversary took a heavy toll, says Beverly. “I was surprised at how easily my own tears flowed as I watched old broadcasts. In some ways it feels like the events happened yesterday. In others, it seems a lifetime ago. Regardless, those affected will surely never forget.”

During the 2006 hurricane season, Connelly and her husband, Joe, kept an anxious watch on forecasts. “Even though we no longer live close to the coastal waters, we trembled at the very thought.”

The Connellys returned to Louisiana from Wylie, Texas, where they had fled ahead of Katrina, and then continued to live after the storm crippled New Orleans, where Joe pastored two United Methodist churches.

  Post Katrina: A car nestled in tree branches near Beverly Connellysí home in Kenner, La.

Between them, the Connellys now minister at four churches and a counseling center. Joe leads churches in Shreveport and Mansfield; Beverly pastors two churches in Mansfield and also does counseling at a medical ministry in Shreveport.

“Many of our friends from New Orleans are still living in the FEMA trailers, which have had constant problems...from break-ins (after someone discovered the same key fits several trailers) to fires,” says Beverly. “Other friends have rebuilt homes and are finally living in them again.”

Connelly says that the New Orleans school system has changed—in some ways for the better, but that some schools will probably never re-open.

Stores in parts of the city, particularly in East New Orleans, were still not open in December, leaving residents traveling long distances for groceries, gas and even fast food.

“United Methodist churches are also scarce in New Orleans. The United Methodist Church is using the cluster concept, and congregations share a building and often a service, with pastors working in teams.

The Connellys are thankful for the generosity of the many mission teams and donations from throughout the country and the world. “People have been generous with their time and supplies for the cleanup of homes and church sites,” says Beverly. “And mission teams from everywhere have come in to help.”

An exhibit of “The Faces of Katrina” at a Shreveport art museum reminds Beverly of the lingering sadness. “I see the billboard advertisement, but can’t bring myself to go. In some sense, I know I will see my own reflection in those faces. Worse is the real possibility that I may see the actual faces of friends and co-workers.”


Copyright © 2007 Duke Divinity School. All Rights Reserved.
magazine@div.duke.edu (919) 660-3412