Residents offered shelter from the storm to many

Published 12:06 am Sunday, August 30, 2015

Ten years ago Natchez hosted thousands of evacuees and refugees from Hurricane Katrina, including many who lined up at the convention center and throughout downtown Natchez to receive relief assistance from the Red Cross. People prayed together, helped collect items from donations, opened their houses for shelter and lent a helping hand to those in need. (file photos)

Ten years ago Natchez hosted thousands of evacuees and refugees from Hurricane Katrina, including many who lined up at the convention center and throughout downtown Natchez to receive relief assistance from the Red Cross. People prayed together, helped collect items from donations, opened their houses for shelter and lent a helping hand to those in need. (file photos)

By Vershal Hogan and Lindsey Shelton

NATCHEZ — Angie Brown still hears every year from a woman she first met in a shelter in Natchez following the devastation Hurricane Katrina wreaked on the Gulf Coast and New Orleans 10 years ago.

“She was such a joy to be in the shelter, and was always — and still is — very appreciative for what we were able to do for her in such a time of need. There are others who settled here in Adams County, and I run into them every now and then, and they are still very appreciative for what we were able to do and have made great citizens for Adams County.”

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A board member of  the Adams County chapter of the American Red Cross at the time the city opened an unprecedented number of shelters, Brown said the response of the community — and the country — left her feeling staggered when they saw their fellow countrymen in need.

“All the churches came together and were able to house individuals,” Brown said. “And the number of Red Cross volunteers who came in without their assistance — we would have been hard pressed because we would not have been able to manage all these shelters without them.”

In addition to the large shelter at the Steckler Multipurpose Building on the Natchez High campus, churches played a major role in the efforts to help refugees in Natchez. Parkway Baptist Church, First Baptist Church and Community Chapel of God all opened shelters that were open for weeks, feeding people and making sure evacuees were taken care of during their stay.

Other churches, including Zion Chapel African Episcopal Methodist, Jefferson Street United Methodist and First Assembly of God, became the central location for the collection and distribution of donations that flooded the area from across the country.

The Rev. Bo Swilley of Community Chapel Church of God said refugees and church members watched the devastation in New Orleans after a community member provided the church with a satellite dish for the shelter.

“We were thinking that Katrina had basically missed New Orleans, and then the video feed starts coming in, and the city is flooded,” Swilley said. “I remember one man, he said ‘That’s our neighborhood.’ And the water just keeps rushing, and he said, ‘That’s my house; that’s my house.’ And he just started crying.

“It went from the excitement over thinking Katrina had missed New Orleans as far as not thinking it was going to be that bad to people just being overwhelmed with grief at what they were looking at and the sudden realization of, ‘Oh my goodness, we don’t have anyplace to go back to.’”

As a designated American Red Cross shelter, Community Chapel worked closely with the organization and Red Cross worker Cynthia Schafer of Indianapolis, Ind.

“Because of her experience in Natchez, Cynthia brings back a group of kids to work at the Children’s Home every year,” Swilley said. “It’s those kinds of things that stick with you 10 years later.

Parkway Baptist members worked around the clock to ensure refugees were taken care of at the church.

Trish Pomeroy was the night shelter manager and said the church saw all kinds of people come through the shelter.

“We had people from all walks of life,” Pomeroy said. “We had businessmen, everyday people, people from the Ninth Ward.”

Not everyone who arrived on Parkway’s doorstep found what they needed, though.

“There was a couple with a handicapped daughter who showed up on the first night, and we just weren’t equipped to handle her special needs,” Pomeroy said. “After seeing them sitting there for a while, I went up and asked them if they could stay at a home and they said yes. So, I called my husband and children and told them to come to the church and help them to our home.”

The family stayed with the Pomeroys for a couple of days and were luckily able to later return to their damaged house in Slidell.

Taking the family in is not something Pomeroy said she ever thought twice about that night.

“I have a nephew with cerebral palsy, and I know if my sister was stranded somewhere, I would want someone to help her,” she said.

Teresa Dennis was the director of the then-Concordia Parish Economic and Industrial Development District at the time of the storm. Shortly after the storm made landfall, Dennis received a phone call from Vidalia Mayor Hyram Copeland and then-Concordia Parish Sheriff Randy Maxwell asking her to drop all economic development duties and focus on evacuee care.

“After Katrina, what we learned was Vidalia is close enough to the coast that people that have little income and resources were close enough that they can get here until safe — and close enough to get back — so we are the prime spot for people to come to,” Dennis said. “A huge amount of people came. They felt safe but they felt like they could go back and check on their things easily.”

But after the storm blew through and people realized going back wasn’t going to be so easy, Dennis said the cities of Natchez and Vidalia and the Town of Ferriday knew they were going to have to work together and coordinate with FEMA and the Red Cross to make sure evacuees were taken care of.

During that time, one local person — Grace Woods — would earn the Red Cross’s Nightingale Award for her work with the efforts.

“We worked on getting a free medical clinic established in the courthouse here,” Dennis said. “People left their dentures, glasses and medicine behind, and they had no way of getting that. We recruited doctors teams from all across the country, and Mayor Copeland and I would pick up the doctors and make sure they were licensed in other states so they could practice medicine here.”

A doctor who came down and observed the clinic later wrote a paper about the city’s response and entered it into the Rural Health Association’s archives for future hurricane responses, Dennis said.

Working with Concordia Bank, the City of Vidalia also established a resource center in what is now the Riverfront Royale Salon and Spa.

“The sheriff’s office came in and brought some computers they had and networked them for us so the evacuees could get online and see what was available to them through FEMA and other agencies,” Dennis said. “We staffed that for six weeks, then FEMA actually came in and took over it for us.”

The resource center helped one man — who was living in a travel trailer on the riverfront — locate his elderly mother, who had been rescued by helicopter from his rooftop, Dennis said.

“Helping find that man’s mother, that kind of detailed, tedious work, was the kind of thing the resource center did,” Dennis said. “I worked 12 to 16 hour days for weeks, and community volunteers were instrumental in helping provide the services. There was just an outpouring of generosity.”

First responders, community volunteers, church members and others worked tirelessly to do what they could to help refugees, Pomeroy said.

“It made me realize that we should be grateful for what we have, and it also made me more aware of other people’s struggles and reminded me that we should be more compassionate to people on a daily basis,” she said.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Angie Brown’s position with the Adams County Chapter of the American Red Cross. At the time of Hurricane Katrina, Brown was a board member for the organization and was not named executive director until 2007.