Irene relief work faces logistical challenges

ALPHARETTA, Ga. (BP) -- Ironically, on Aug. 29 -- the sixth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina -- Hurricane Irene has almost ended her 1,500-mile path of destruction from North Carolina to eastern Canada.

By all accounts, Irene could have been much worse. But that's little consolation for the estimated 65 million people impacted on the East Coast -- some of whom lost loved ones while many others are facing flood damage from the Category 1 hurricane that reached 600 miles in width.

According to news accounts, Hurricane Irene resulted in 25 deaths, some 2.4 million Americans being evacuated from their homes and 4.5 million without electricity. Irene's damage estimates range from a low of $7 billion to $20 billion. Katrina, by comparison, inflicted damages of $105.8 billion in Mississippi and Louisiana alone, according to the National Hurricane Center.

"While Irene was not a wind event, it was still a rain event which is producing extreme flooding," said Mickey Caison, national coordinator for Southern Baptist Disaster Relief (SBDR) with the North American Mission Board in Alpharetta, Ga.

"The flooding continues to develop," Caison said, adding, "We're seeing where trees are down due to wind and tornadoes. A lot of roads and bridges are out, so getting into some of these areas is going to take a while. There are some great needs out there."

It will take a couple more days to get full deployment, Caison said.

"Assessment has to be done. We have to determine where we can house volunteers. Because so much of the damage is in the New England/New York area, we don't have a lot of churches there, so we have to build the infrastructure to logistically support our teams."

North Carolina and its Outer Banks caught much of Irene's fury as a Category 3 hurricane. In the Tar Heel State alone, 1.3 million people were affected and 300,000 people remain without power. Officials estimated that North Carolina suffered $600 million in damages in 14 counties, including 137 washed-out roads and 19 destroyed or damaged bridges. Bunyan, N.C., recorded 14 inches of rain, while Cedar Island, N.C., endured 115 mph winds.

Three SBDR feeding and mud-out units from Mississippi already are en route to North Carolina, said Gaylon Moss, a DR coordinator for the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina.

The state DR team in New York already has activated one feeding unit, reported Mike Flannery, state DR director for the New York Baptist Convention.

Flannery said due to serious flooding west of the Hudson River, feeding will be vital for at least two weeks. He said the feeding unit hopes to be cooking several thousand meals a day by Tuesday evening. The New York feeding unit can prepare up to 15,000 meals a day, but Flannery said he needs more feeding volunteer workers to reach that number. A Mississippi Baptist feeding team also is headed to New York.

Flooding is particularly bad in Vermont, where so many cities and towns are built along rivers, said Bruce James, state DR director for the Baptist Convention of New England. Flooding caused by Hurricane Irene in Vermont -- also hit by heavy flooding earlier this year -- is the worst since 1923, James said. Thousands of citizens are inaccessible because of washed-out roads and bridges, including century-old, irreplaceable covered bridges.

How does Hurricane Irene stack up with Hurricanes Ike and Gustav, which ravaged Louisiana, Texas and the Gulf Coast back in September 2008? In response to those two hurricanes, SBDR feeding units prepared more than 5 million meals for victims, responders and volunteers.

"The reality is that we could end up with same amount of damage spread from North Carolina to Canada," Caison said. "There's significant damage in North Carolina, Virginia, New England and New York. But where Ike and Gustav were very concentrated along the Gulf Coast, this is spread out over 1,500-1,800 miles."

Eastern Canada wound up as Irene's final stop of destruction, with wind gusts peaking at 30-50 mph in eastern Quebec, the St. Lawrence Valley, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. Irene's wind and rain were slated to end across Labrador on Tuesday.

"Canada also has disaster relief but their deployment is different from ours, in that Canada's military is more heavily involved," Caison said. "There will be a limited amount of work available for our volunteers in Canada."

Endel Lee, NAMB's national coordinator for disaster relief chaplaincy, said Southern Baptist chaplains will be concentrated in the higher population areas with the most hurricane damage, although every mud-out, chainsaw and feeding team will include an embedded chaplain. Lee said SBDR chaplains also will partner with chaplains representing the Red Cross and Salvation Army.


Mickey Noah writes for the North American Mission Board.