Agencies gear up for storm season

Published 5:00 am Tuesday, May 26, 2009

American Red Cross instructors are working to meet theapproaching 2009 Atlantic Hurricane Season by training area churchmembers in hurricane shelter operations, thereby adding expertiseto a group of volunteers already experienced from prior storms.

Allison Applewhite, emergency services director forHattiesburg’s South Central Mississippi Chapter, said the 10-weektraining program would produce Red Cross-certified volunteers inthe 10 churches that serve as hurricane evacuation shelters inLincoln and surrounding counties. She said the program would alsoestablish mutual expectations between churches and theorganization, adding that methods of service delivery have changedmuch since the Red Cross’s difficulties in handling the responsesto Hurricanes Katrina in 2005 and Gustav last year.

“We are working with the churches to let them know what isexpected of the Red Cross because we aren’t in Katrina landanymore,” Applewhite said. “A lot of things have changed sinceKatrina.”

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Applewhite said the Red Cross would provide material resourcesfor the shelters such as food, toiletries, cots and information andreferral services so evacuees would know when it is safe to returnhome. She said the organization would begin staging supplies 72hours in advance of an approaching storm.

The Red Cross also plans to provide basic emergency healthservices at every shelter and will deploy mental health staff ifavailable, Applewhite said.

Still, Applewhite said churches should be prepared to go italone during a hurricane’s approach and passing.

“We do ask people… to be able to prepare for a disaster thefirst three days,” she said. “During a disaster, we are required tocot for a certain percentage of the population. Afterward is whenour material resources start flowing. We ask the community to beready to support itself.”

South Central Mississippi Chapter Community Programs DirectorRobin Ebert Mays said a nurse-training program would begin in July,and further classes to train damage assessment teams are ongoing.She said the organization is always looking for more volunteers,DAT personnel and especially nurses.

Mays said the training programs would last until August, whenhurricane activity typically increases for Mississippi. Theofficial start of the 2009 Atlantic Hurricane Season begins on June1, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predictsit could produce up to 14 named storms throughout the summer.

It only took two named storms – Katrina and Gustav – to damagethe Red Cross in Southwest Mississippi.

The Brookhaven-headquartered Mid-South Mississippi Chapterfolded last year after a weak response to Hurricane Gustav in earlySeptember left church shelters fending for themselves. It was soondiscovered the organization’s weakness was rooted in anapproximately $25,000 debt left over from Hurricane Katrina in2005.

Franklin, Lawrence, Lincoln and Pike counties are now served bythe Mid-South Service Area, which is overseen by the Hattiesburgchapter. But efforts to grow local support and restart theMid-South chapter began almost as soon as it disbanded.

“After Gustav, I went and visited with these churches, and nowI’ve gone back out and visited again,” Mays said. “The churches aresupportive of us, and I think the relationship is good.”

Bill Allbritton, chairman of deacons at Faith PresbyterianChurch, said volunteers at his church have already begun meetingwith Mays and the Red Cross.

“They have a real good plan in place… we’re preparing on ourend,” he said. “The Red Cross is really taking a pro-activestance.”

Allbritton could not provide a set number of FaithPresbyterian’s volunteers, pointing out that almost the entiremembership contributes to shelter operations in different ways. Hesaid the church’s volunteers are organized into units, like ahospitality group, a kitchen staff and a facilities and securitygroup. Additionally, he said church women have already begun toprepare and freeze bags of “shelter soup” to feed hundreds ofevacuees if needed.

“We’ve got the bodies,” Allbritton said. “We just hope and praythis year the Lord will protect all of us and we won’t have to usethem.”

First Baptist Church of Brookhaven Associate Pastor Jeff Doremussaid his church, too, has had initial meetings with the RedCross.

“We are in the process with them of continuing to develop outpreparedness plan and getting our folks trained,” he said.

Doremus said FBC has more than 50 members who participate inrunning the church’s hurricane shelter, and most of them have gonethrough Red Cross training in the past.

“We’re pretty much good to go,” he said. “There’s still someinitial preparedness issues we will have to deal with, but we’reready to go.”