MDS ends seven-year recovery effort in New Orleans
Last Gulf Coast project closes with gratitude: ‘You have blessed us,’ says pastor.by Sheldon C. Good
After spending seven years and $8 million responding along the Gulf Coast to hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Mennonite Disaster Service has formally closed its last project here. About 70 MDS personnel, Mennonite leaders and local pastors, disaster response workers and community members gathered May 16 at MDS headquarters in New Orleans for a commemoration ceremony.
Charles Duplessis, pastor of Mount Nebo Bible Baptist Church, hugs Kevin King, MDS executive director, at the house which MDS rebuilt. Photo by Sheldon C. Good.
The “Passing the Torch” event celebrated MDS’s work along the Gulf Coast, the longest continuous effort in its 62-year history.
Hurricane Katrina—the costliest and one of the five deadliest hurricanes ever to strike the United States—ravaged the Gulf Coast in late August 2005. Days later, MDS volunteers began cleanup work. Less than a month after that, Hurricane Rita struck much of the same area.
At the May 16 event, Pastor Charles Duplessis—who lost not only his house but the meeting place of his church, Mount Nebo Bible Baptist—thanked MDS for its work.
“Individually and collectively you have blessed us,” he said. “I want to thank you for loving God and for loving people, whether they know God or not. God has been good to you because of your service. God has been good to us because of your service.”
MDS volunteers built Duplessis a new home, which currently doubles as the congregation’s meeting place. His former house was swept away when a wall of water broke through a levee and surged through New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward.
After constructing the house, MDS learned the drywall from China that was used emitted sulfurous gases. The drywall may have been used in more than 100,000 homes across the South, reports said.
As a result, Duplessis’ wife and fellow family members, as well as thousands of other people, suffered respiratory problems. MDS gutted the entire home and rebuilt it.
“My family wants to thank you for doing it twice,” he said. “You made it right, again.”
Like Duplessis, each person on the Gulf Coast has a unique story from 2005, the most active Atlantic hurricane season on record, which led to an estimated 3,913 deaths and record damage of $159.2 billion. So does MDS executive director Kevin King.
The May 16 event turned somber as King recalled the day Katrina began striking New Orleans and southern Mississippi.
“As the news came in, I was glued to the TV. I was pacing around like a caged cat,” he said.
King called previous MDS directors, who said he needed to visit the Gulf immediately. A private airplane flew him up and down the Gulf Coast 1,000 feet above sea level.
“Never in my history of 21 years of disaster work did I fly in one direction for an hour and a half and not get out of the disaster scene,” he said. “And that’s when I knew this was huge.”
The scope of MDS’s response to the two hurricanes was unprecedented for the Lititz, Pa.-based organization. More than 17,000 volunteers worked 126,400 days throughout the effort, completing 194 cleanup sites, 739 minor repairs, 183 major repairs and 112 rebuilds.
MDS operated 19 projects along the Gulf Coast after the back-to-back hurricanes. The largest project was in New Orleans, where the most deaths occurred—more than 1,400, reports said.
The organization received $8 million: $6 million designated for the storms and an additional $2 million in general donations.
The “Passing the Torch” event marked a unique transition for MDS. Though the organization consistently moves in and out of locations across the United States and Canada, perhaps never before has it developed such deep relationships with local pastors and ministries. King honored MDS disaster response coordinator Jerry Klassen’s vision to “start with the churches.”
“And today, we are celebrating emerging partnerships with churches,” King said.
Dwight Webster is the other minister for whom MDS rebuilt a home. Webster is the senior and founding pastor of Christian Unity Baptist Church.—Sheldon C. Good. This originally ran in Mennonite World Review.
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