Local pastor and sons aid in hurricane relief efforts

They faced 20-hour workdays in the midst of devastation left by Katrina and no guarantee that they would even have cots to sleep on. But for Grand Canyon Baptist Church Pastor Rick Wiles and sons Michael of Grand Canyon and Jeremy of Wickenburg, it was a mission eagerly accepted.

"There is always something you can do," said Rick.

He and his sons are volunteers for Arizona Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, ready to mobilize within 24 hours and to work for two weeks, in disaster areas all over the world. They went on alert Monday, Aug. 29, as Katrina hit the coast, and were on a plane to Baton Rouge, La., around noon the following day.

They spent two weeks working with the American Red Cross in the Spirit of America Kitchen in Covington, La., about 14 miles from Slidell and about 25 miles north of New Orleans. Their unit prepared two meals ­ lunch and dinner ­ daily to be delivered to 22 shelters. At their busiest, they were distributing 16,000 meals each day. They also ran a warehouse and distribution center to three other area kitchens.

Joyce, Rick's wife, said that after nine years in California the family grew sensitive to the threat of disaster.

"Earthquakes would knock the pictures off the walls," she said. "We were so blessed that it was never worse. My heart bleeds for people in tragedy."

Volunteers step into disaster conditions when they work. They eat what they prepare and they sleep where they can ­ sometimes in a hotel, sometimes in a dorm arrangement. Michael said that because of the lack of air conditioning, they slept outdoors on picnic tables some nights.

"A warm shower is a luxury," said Rick. "And if you're sleeping on a cot, you've made it."

While they didn't meet with the homeless people they were feeding, they were surrounded by hurricane victims nonetheless.

"Every single person we talked to had some damage to their homes," said Rick. "One guy was going out finding people and delivering MREs and water while his house was under 12 feet of water. Several others had their families in shelters."

He said that while the news focused on New Orleans, devastation was widespread and worse than television images could ever convey.

"I got to leave the compound and visit and see places," said Michael. "It was pretty intense. Slidell was under 22 feet of water."

"Out away from New Orleans, there were places that took it harder than New Orleans did," Rick said. "You don't see much coverage in the outlying areas. There are whole towns that are gone."

Michael recalls the selective nature of the destruction.

"We saw a church where no trees fell, the flowers were still there and the windows weren't shattered. Everything around the church was destroyed," he said.

He said the most striking thing he saw was the desperation with which people clung to their worldly goods.

"There were a lot of stubborn people," he said. "Even if we don't have much, we value the stuff more than life itself sometimes. There were people who chose to hold onto stuff and lost their lives."

The storm also drove out wildlife, and it wasn't until a week later that insects, birds and other animals returned.

"There was not a cricket, a bird, a dog ­ nothing," Rick said. "There were no signs of animal life. It was a big boost to us when the wildlife began to come back."

It will be a lot longer before many residents can come back. Rick said that people could remain displaced for as long as five years, with reconstruction taking longer.

"Normally we would have shut down the feeding stations by now, but we expect to be feeding thousands into Christmas," he said.

The organization tries to set up kitchens and feeding centers in churches.

"The idea is, they're still there after we're gone. People locally have a place to tie," Rick said.

Keeping centers staffed can be a challenge for the all-volunteer effort. Work constraints make it impossible for many people to commit to being able to mobilize within 24 hours for as long as two weeks.

In Michael's case, his employer, the IMAX Theatre, didn't hesitate to rearrange schedules so that he could go.

Also, said Rick, there is a limit to how much people can absorb.

"It's difficult to do 14 days in any disaster," he said. "You're waking up at 4:30 or 5 a.m. and going to bed at 11 or 12 at night. You don't realize how tired you are until you get home."

As a faith-based organization, they rely on prayer and fellowship to stay strong.

"Part of the training is to pray for strength and to call others to pray for you," said Rick. "But as much preparation as you have, you are not prepared for what you will experience. We have devotional and debriefing time to talk about the day and what we've experienced. That's our time to let down and shed tears."

Coming home was difficult as well. Joyce said all three felt guilty for having so much when the people they'd just been with had lost everything.

"It affected us here, even after we came back to the normalcy of life," said Rick.

Arizona is one of 41 states with units participating in National Southern Baptist Disaster Relief. Nationwide, there are 77,000 volunteers in 342 units providing food, showers, laundry facilities, child care, clean-up assistance and other aid.

They are the third largest non-government responder in disasters, behind the Red Cross and Salvation Army. Rick said that they are present at 95 percent of all disasters and work with the two larger agencies under joint contracts from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The national group was formed in 1967, with its first response to Hurricane Beulah. Since then, they've been present at numerous disasters, both natural and man-made. Their longest deployment ­ 319 days ­ was in response to 9-11.

Arizona's unit is one of the newest, formed a year and a half ago in response to the Rodeo-Chedeski and other wildfires.

For the Rodeo-Chedeski, kitchen units came in from Texas, California and Oklahoma.

"We wanted Arizona not to have to be the recipient," said Rick. "When disaster strikes we want to have a feeding unit that will feed at least 5,000 people a day in our own state."

They are in the process of assembling that unit now, having so far acquired a trailer, two ovens and a tilt skillet. While the appliances generally cost about $29,000, Wiles said they got all three for $14,000 from a company that wanted to contribute. The cost for equipping a 5,000-meal unit is between $55,000 and $60,000.

"It's expensive," said Rick. "We have to get commercial-grade equipment and 40, 60 and 80-quart pots. We need propane tanks and pressure washer and steam cleaner."

He said the mobile kitchen units are subject to the same health regulations as other food providers.

The group already has a portable shower and laundry facility, and 45 people trained to run it. There are abut 90 people trained to run the kitchens.

Rick coordinates much of the training in the state. Those who volunteer go through three tiers ranging from working with people to operating the kitchen.

Rick said that volunteers do not have to be Southern Baptist, but they should be "of like faith." They must also be prepared to leave within 24 hours and commit for two weeks.

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