[Episcopal News Service] In a year of extraordinary natural disasters – tornadoes, fires, floods and earthquakes – Episcopalians are reaching out nationally and internationally through prayer, financial assistance and “boots on the ground” relief, recovery and rebuilding efforts, and are forging creative partnerships in the process.
After a string of deadly late April tornadoes shredded most of the affordable housing in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, three Episcopal churches there formed a cooperative to rebuild, partnered with Habitat for Humanity, and on Dec. 1 broke ground on the first home.
“There was a shortage of affordable housing even before the tornadoes” which killed more than 40 people and damaged or destroyed more than 7,000 homes in Tuscaloosa alone, according to the Rev. Kelley Hudlow, chair of the board of the Episcopal Tornado Recovery Cooperative(ETRC).
The ETRC also has partnered with the Diocese of Alabama and Episcopal Relief & Development, which supplied grants for a disaster case manager, a construction project manager and building materials, in what Hudlow describes as a long-term recovery effort.
The three churches – Christ Church,Canterbury Episcopal Chapel and Student Center, and St. Matthias – weren’t damaged by the tornado. Each offered immediate individual responses after the tornado struck, but quickly recognized the need for long-term recovery efforts and to ensure that residents aren’t priced out of the future housing market, Hudlow said during a recent telephone interview.
“We felt there was a real need, that’s why we partnered with Habitat for Humanity,” Hudlow said. “The Episcopal Church was in a good position to bring financial resources, to make sure quality affordable housing goes back and that the land doesn’t get eaten up by developers for business or housing targeted toward the higher income market.”
The ETRC is just one example of how Episcopalians are reaching out.
“This has been one of the busiest years on record in terms of most disasters all over the country, not only some major disasters like the tornadoes in Alabama and Hurricane Irene but there were smaller disasters as well,” said Katie Mears, program manager for U.S. disaster preparedness and response for Episcopal Relief & Development (http://www.er-d.org).
She said that the agency is working with local churches and other partners nationally in some 17 dioceses and internationally in 41 countries, offering support, relief and long-term recovery assistance.
Although the Episcopal churches in Texas escaped damage in September when a series of wildfires scorched thousands of acres of land, consumed more than 1,500 homes, and killed several people, they quickly mobilized to aid those affected, according to Luke Blount, a communications specialist with the Episcopal Diocese of Texas.
St. Luke’s on the Lake Church in Austin served as a refuge for weary firefighters and displaced homeowners. While its members aided local residents and emergency workers throughout the fires, they also continued to offer relief to tornado-devastated communities in Alabama and Mississippi.
Allen Griswold, St. Luke’s junior warden, said in a recent telephone interview that he’d made eight trips in eight months since April tornadoes “all but wiped out” the small towns of Hackleburg and Phil Campbell in Alabama and Smithville, Mississippi. The three-day storm system, known as the 2011 Super Outbreak, is considered the largest tornado outbreak on record, spawning more than 353 tornadoes in 21 states and killing 346 people, including at least 239 in Alabama.
On Dec. 18, Griswold said he had just completed the 3,200-mile round-trip drive, trying to bring Christmas to people whom “everyone’s pretty much forgotten about.”
“One woman, Jennifer, lost her 38-year-old husband two weeks before the tornado from a rare disease,” said Griswold, 61. “Her house was completely destroyed. She has absolutely nothing. Her daughter Sky asked for a locket for Christmas to wear around her neck so she could carry a picture of her dad with her. Another child asked for bubbles. You know, those little bottles that you blow bubbles out of.”
“It bothers me that not enough people are paying attention to it and it bothers me that these people are in such need and don’t ask for anything. St. Luke’s has committed to staying,” he added.
Through “boots on the ground” work Griswold is developing a network of contacts via various Episcopal churches throughout Alabama “so when another event happens we can connect with each other.” He also has forged partnerships with the local Baptist church and the Church of Christ, as well as the local school system in Smithville, Mississippi.
“We have a cobbled-in school area now,” he said. “We’ve provided food to help, bought a golf cart so the principal can move around … and we continue to bring food, water, money, appliances and building supplies.”
In Smithville, three students were orphaned by the tornado but are struggling to finish high school, he said. “They had single parents that were lost during the tornado. One [student] was living in his pickup truck. That has changed now. There’s another girl, working two jobs, about 13 miles away from Smithville to try and feed herself and go to school and hold on,” he said. “That is a commitment to education if I’ve ever seen it.”
As a result, he has established a fund with the school principal “to make sure the kids have caps and gowns for graduation and to have clothes to wear to graduate with, because they have nothing,” he said.
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