Gustav evacuees

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 5, 2008

Panolians pour hearts into Gustav evacuees

By Rita Howell

When the winds of Gustav blew into the Gulf of Mexico last week, the result was displacement of about two million people as they evacuated southern Louisiana and the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

Some of them stopped in Panola County.

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Local volunteers quickly responded when evacuations were ordered.

Panola County Department of Human Services director Arlene Wilson had traveled to the South Panola-Vicksburg football game last Friday night and had arrived home and gotten to bed about 5 a.m. By mid-morning Saturday, she was up and helping organize what would become a haven for people seeking shelter from Gustav.

Batesville First Baptist Church had hosted a Red Cross-sanctioned shelter in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina three years ago, and church members quickly offered their facilities again, though this time all the county’s shelters were independently operated. In all, five local shelters would open to serve about 450 people.

Panola’s Emergency Management director Son Hudson and assistant director Daniel Cole helped with planning and logistics, hauling in cots for the first wave of evacuees.

“The first people came Saturday night,” Wilson remembered.

Eventually First Baptist’s large family life center and gym were filled and the new gym at First United Methodist Church across the street was called into service. At First UMC an evacuee named Judith, a chef in New Orleans, led the charge in the kitchen as Sunday School classes took turns preparing meals for their Louisiana guests.

Hosanna Worship Center, Calvary Baptist and Sardis Lake Baptist all opened their doors. Churches not able to serve as shelters jumped into action offer assistance with donations of food, diapers, clothes, bedding and whatever else was needed.

People were directed to the shelters by radio announcements, attendants at the interstate rest stops, and by cellphone as the first arrivals called their family members still on the roads to direct them to Batesville.

There were some return customers, evacuees who’d stayed at First Baptist after Katrina and called to see if they could come back.

Stepping in to offer shelter to family pets when the churches couldn’t accommodate them were Kim Strickland of the Panola County Humane Society, local veterinarians and Pet Stop owner Sara Parker.

Appliance dealer William Turner supplied televisions to help those in shelters keep up with storm recovery efforts back home. Dennis Lott supplied ice.

Serta sent mattresses and the Batesville Lions Club donated funds for the Sardis Lake Baptist Church shelter. Sardis Lake Christian Camp loaned more mattresses.

People brought casseroles and salads and stuffed animals.

Business owner Gil Bridges set up a giant inflated “moon bounce” at First Methodist to entertain the children. Stephanie Kilpatrick brought balloons for the children at First Baptist.

Throughout the week local residents have cooked, cleaned and comforted their Louisiana guests.

“Every need has been met,” Arlene Wilson said. “When there was a need, there would be somebody there to meet it. I call them ‘God things,’ when you just don’t understand it.”

At Sardis Lake Baptist, shelter volunteer Betty Young described how their last group of evacuees arrived in the early hours Tuesday.

A church volunteer was heading home from shelter duty about 1 a.m. Tuesday, Young said. She stopped at Wal-Mart and encountered a family of nine who had no place to go. She turned around and brought them to her church.

“We had counted the beds we had available and we had five extra ones, before this group arrived,” Young explained. “Several of us had counted the beds. When the group with nine people got here, we said we didn’t have enough beds. But we found four more beds that weren’t there before. We don’t know where they came from. The Lord sent us four extra beds.”

As of Thursday afternoon, only two shelters remained open, First Baptist and Sardis Lake Baptist. Wilson said all would be closed by Saturday.

She had observed a group as they prepared to leave Thursday morning from First Baptist.

“They stood in a circle over there on the sidewalk and held hands and prayed,” Wilson said. “Before they left they made a donation to this church.”