Episcopal Relief and Development Reports on Texas Wildfires

Posted by Luke Blount on

Episcopal Relief and Development has been in contact with EDOT's Emergency Response Coordinators the Rev. Gill Keyworth and the Ven. Russ Oechsel. See the story below, or visit er-d.org.


On a hot, dry September night in a small Texas town, more than 60 people gathered at Calvary Episcopal Church.  The most catastrophic fire in Texas history, the one that impacted Bastrop, had begun burning eight days earlier on September 4.  By September 12, more than 1,500 homes had been destroyed in a town with less than 8,000 residents.  But on this night, despite the hazy, smoke-laden sky outside, in the parish hall the smell of rich sauce and cheese filled the air as lasagnas were pulled from the oven.  The Rev. Lisa Hines, rector of the church, knew intimately what her community was experiencing; she had lost her own home only days before to the fire. In the midst of the disaster she opened the doors of the big brick church on Main Street and invited the community in. Parishioners, many of whom had also lost their own homes, worked in the kitchen to feed the assembled crowd.  


Fires this season in Texas have burned millions of acres and left thousands of homes and businesses destroyed.  The fires were exacerbated by the record-breaking heat and drought. Having experienced the devastating effects of Hurricane Ike just a few short years ago, the Episcopal Diocese of Texas was prepared to respond.  Over the last three years the diocese actively encouraged more than 150 parishes to create disaster preparedness plans.  When the fires began to blaze around the state, congregations throughout Texas were already educated about disasters and prepared to help.  


Even before the Texas fires had reached Bastrop, churches across Texas were supporting emergency responders, collecting and distributing cold drinks and “wet-wipes” to firefighters.  The diocese was also in contact with parishes in impacted areas, staying up-to-date on their specific needs. “Clothing donations came first, which was great.  But eventually it became clear that what people really needed was financial support,” explained Luke Blount, Communications Specialist for the diocese.  “We really want to be focusing on the needs on the ground, so we started encouraging donors to give money or gift cards to grocery stores and places like Home Depot.”


“As time goes on needs will change,” explained the Rev. Gill Keyworth, a diocesan disaster coordinator. “As the fires died out, people began requesting sieves to sift through the debris that was left of their home.  Now people are turning toward the future and trying to envision what their lives will look like a couple of months or years down the road.”  Keyworth’s fellow diocesan disaster coordinator, Archdeacon Russ Oechsel, went on to say that those who have lost their homes are facing a long process, possibly two to three years, before they can get back into homes. People will have to deal with insurance settlements, mortgage paperwork, and getting permits for new construction if the slab of their house cracked with the heat of the fire.


Blount explained, “It is not even clear if people will want to stay where they were.  If you used to live in a forest, it is now an ash field.”  To help people navigate this process, Blount has kept a running blog of fire-related news, posting useful information like a fire evacuation checklist, FEMA forms, tenant bill of rights, information on how to replace missing documents, where to find counseling services etc.  It is the hope of the diocese that these resources will help guide people to available services.


But perhaps the largest contribution that the diocese will be making is a program to provide Spiritual Care Teams in places where disaster has struck.   After Hurricane Ike, the diocese realized that a need existed for people trained in spiritual/emotional care, to just listen to folks trying to rebuild their lives post-disaster.  With support from Episcopal Relief & Development, the diocese designed a program to help fill this void.  At the end of September the diocese trained a group of volunteers from around the state, many of whom have a background in counseling or mental health. Most of these volunteers attended “part-one” of this training program last year.  After responding to recent tornados in Mississippi, the volunteers requested more information on providing support to children who have experienced loss.  “Part two” will focus on these skills, in hopes that volunteers will be able to provide support to families who have lost so much.


As time passes, the need for help will change and expand.  Many people will have a gap between their FEMA and insurance claims and what is actually needed to rebuild, and they will need further assistance to recover.  The Episcopal Diocese of Texas is in close communication with other non-profit and disaster relief agencies, and together they will address the needs of affected communities.  Episcopal Relief & Development will be supporting this vital work throughout the upcoming year.


The morning after the church supper at Calvary, the Rev. Hines gave a sermon to a congregation who had lost more than forty homes in the previous week.  “As the smoke clears, the needs of our community will become clearer and the ways in which we can help each other will also become clearer,” she said. “We have a very long process of recovery ahead once the danger of fire has passed… (But perhaps) our ashes can become the place where we experience mercy and the place from which we receive the wisdom and power we need to join in God’s work of the new creation.”


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