St. Lukes Episcopal Church is a large, wealthy congregation in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on a campus of several buildings including the church, an elementary school, a gymnasium, and a large kitchen. Its parking lot borders Womans Hospital. The physical plant, proximity to the hospital, and the special abilities of its associate rectors were the springboard for several innovative relief efforts.
|Key Features of St. Lukes Episcopal Church
The first was related to the hospital next door. Immediately after the storm, the hospital became a principal receiving facility for late-term maternity patients and premature infants evacuated from New Orleans. According to respondents, the American Red Cross could not serve women with advanced pregnancies, the hospital systems in New Orleans were collapsing, and seriously ill patients and those needing intensive care, including premature infants, were being air evacuated to Womans Hospital and other facilities able to serve them. The hospital approached the church, among eight others in the area, for emergency shelter space so mothers might be near their infants. The church sheltered up to eight families at a time over a six-week period, while church staff and volunteers cooked meals, laundered clothes, and helped them find remaining family, often fathers and older children who were evacuated to other cities across the country.
The church facility could shelter up to 80 people. At the request of the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), St. Lukes also housed 20 to 30 EPA investigators who were returning to New Orleans each day to address water and other pollution issues. An associate rector coordinated more than 120 volunteers from the congregation to staff the shelter, buy and cook food, answer phones, and do laundry. Kitchen volunteers prepared food both for the St. Lukes shelter operations and for other shelters. For a short time, the church operated a day care center in its gym for its staff and for hospital employees so the parents could continue their relief work.
St. Lukes other major relief effort was the creation of a mobile van unit, the product of the particular skills and forethought of an associate rector who was also a lawyer and retired military officer with logistical experience. The rector suspected that there would be need for food, water, cleaning supplies, and communications equipment because there were no utilities in New Orleans, as well as spiritual counseling as evacuees were allowed back into the city to survey the damage and begin the cleanup process.
In early September 2005, the associate rector purchased and, with the help of another associate rector, outfitted a mobile van with laptop computers and Internet access so it could serve just-opened impact areas in New Orleans and other areas that might need assistance. Church staff and volunteers began taking donations of food, clothes, and other supplies to towns such as Slidell, which had not yet been reached with any emergency assistance. They then traveled daily to other devastated areas to bring food, clothes, and cleaning supplies and to provide pastoral counseling to those who needed it.
One of the first areas in New Orleans to open for so-called look and leave visits was the Lakeview area on the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain. About a month and a half after the storm, St. Lukes sent the mobile unit, staffed by a driver, a priest, and other volunteers, to Lakeview and established operations on the grounds of an Episcopal church. When the Red Cross arrived approximately 10 days later, the mobile van unit moved to the Ninth Ward, which had also sustained massive damage.
St. Lukes recruited 3040 volunteers to look for individuals returning to the neighborhood and hand out materials. Everyone who came to the mobile unit received a case of water, bottle of bleach, other cleaning supplies, personal hygiene kits, canned food, a bucket, and baby products if needed. It also offered an air-conditioned place to cool off, and counseling for those who were traumatized by seeing the devastation of their homes and for first responders. Interviewees estimate that there were 300400 visits every day, with many people returning multiple times for replenishment of water and cleaning supplies. They suggest that there were perhaps 80,00090,000 units of service delivered by the time they sold the van to the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana in December 2005. These estimates represent both multiple visits by the same individuals and multiple types of service.
The relief work was supported mainly by donations from Episcopal churches and congregants across the country and from the military and seminary network of the associate rector. Neither state nor national Episcopal affiliates provided financial or other support, although they were in communication. The state diocese, located in New Orleans, was hit directly by Hurricane Katrina; it held meetings with its entire clergy in the first week after the storm but was not available to assist directly in relief efforts. Episcopal Relief and Development, which provides domestic and international disaster assistance, was connected with the state diocese rather than local churches, so it too was not a part of St. Lukes response.
According to interviewees, the church did not and would not in the future wish to be a part of the larger emergency response structure, such as become a certified American Red Cross shelter, or be involved with government disaster activities. At the end of four months of intense work and after exhausting donations and resources, church leaders felt it was time to return to some normalcy rather than participate in the long-term recovery process.