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People help one another across a flooded section of a road in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, following Tropical Storm Isaac.

After Haiti impact, U.S. braces for Isaac

For a U.S. volunteer team visiting Haiti, the impact of Hurricane Isaac has shifted from the disruption of a work assignment on the island to concern for family members back home.

With their return delayed because of canceled flights, the seven-member team from the United Methodist Louisiana Annual (regional) Conference had to scramble for an alternative plan, said the Rev. Tim Smith, team leader and pastor of Gretna (La.) United Methodist Church.

"People are antsy, of course, with the storm closing in on New Orleans," he added during an Aug. 27 telephone conversation with United Methodist News Service from Haiti.

United Methodists in several states were preparing for Isaac to make landfall late Tuesday, Aug. 28, or early Wednesday, possibly as a Category 2 hurricane, according to the current forecast. Low-lying areas in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and northwest Florida already had been evacuated.

For the Louisiana team, Issac brought an unexpected ending to a mission trip that began Aug. 20 and involved several days of hard labor at LaTrembaly, a Haitian Methodist church and school. A decision was made Aug. 23 to return to the Methodist Guest House in Petionville, on the Port-au-Prince border, as the storm approached.

Those staying at the guesthouse fared well during the storm, which tracked further south and west than expected. "We experienced gusts of wind &ellipsis; and periods of heavy rain, but nothing like they were predicting," said Tom Vencuss, project director of the Haiti Response Plan for United Methodist Volunteers in Mission.

The plan is part of the denomination's long-term recovery work in Haiti, led through a partnership of the United Methodist Committee on Relief and Methodist Church in Haiti.

Not everyone in Haiti escaped the storm's path. By Aug. 28, the death toll from Isaac in Haiti had risen to 24 as the Haitian government and humanitarian officials continued to assess the damage, reported the Miami Herald.

Vencuss said he would meet with the Rev. Gesner Paul, president of the Methodist Church in Haiti, on Aug. 29 and expected to receive a report on damage in the church circuits. Cholera, another possible aftereffect of the storm, "is always a concern," he said.

In the United States

A resident of a low-lying area of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, flees his flooded home. Web-only photos courtesy of United Nations /Logan Abassi
A resident of a low-lying area of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, flees his flooded home.

In south Florida, Isaac hit Palm Beach County the hardest, receiving a foot of rain, the Herald reported.

The Florida Annual (regional) Conference's disaster recovery ministry is still waiting to hear reports from the state's panhandle. But so far, the conference has heard of no more damage than brought by a typical rainstorm, said Pam Garrison, the disaster recovery manager.

The Alabama-West Florida Conference has already heard from people around the country offering their help should we need it," wrote Mary Catherine Phillips, director of communications for the Alabama-West Florida Annual (regional) Conference. "Many people are generously offering to help. The Alabama-West Florida Conference covets the connectional prayers at this time and will have a better assessment on Wednesday in regards to what is needed within the bounds of our conference. At that point, we will make a determination if supplies and trained teams are needed, or if we will refer this help to another conference in greater need."

United Methodists in areas that Isaac still could strike were continuing storm preparations.

The Louisiana Annual Conference stands prepared as Hurricane Isaac approaches the Gulf coastline, Betty Backstrom, director of communications for the conference, wrote early Tuesday, Aug. 28.

"Our local churches are ramping up to assist with any response efforts needed once the storm has passed us. Emergency Response Teams are on the alert. We are so grateful for the many calls from friends throughout our United Methodist connection offering prayers, concern and help. As with previous storms, damage assessments will begin as soon as possible so that we can share any needs for assistance," Backstrom said.

The United Methodist Committee on Relief, the denomination's relief agency, is gearing up to respond to those affected by the storm.

"With each passing hurricane season, I believe that we as United Methodists are more and more prepared to respond if, God forbid, we are hit with another Katrina-like hurricane," writes the Rev. Tom Hazelwood, UMCOR's executive for U.S. disaster response, in a blog post.

Back in Haiti

Back in Haiti, Louisiana team members kept busy helping with renovation work at the guesthouse, but it was hard not to think about the possibility of another hurricane striking the New Orleans area by Aug. 29, the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. "It touches raw feelings and brings back bad memories," said Smith, the team leader.

When Katrina approached, he and his wife evacuated from their home in Slidell to Panama City, Fla., where her parents lived. After Katrina hit Louisiana, he drove back in and found destruction both in the community and at his home. "Even just three days after the storm, there was black mold growing on the Sheetrock," he recalled.

Smith slept on the floor of his church office for four and a half months after that, trying to keep the church going and working on his house at the same time. He moved to the Gretna church, which also sustained significant damage from Hurricanes Katrina and later Gustav in 2008.

After their original return flights were canceled over the weekend, the team was anxious to return home. Initially rebooked for Sept. 6, Smith spent hours waiting at the Port-au-Prince airport to negotiate an earlier departure. Then, a benefactor decided to pay for a charter flight to take the team to Miami on Aug. 28, where they will rent a van and drive to Louisiana.

Smith, who made his first trip to LaTrembaly last summer, remains committed to LaTrembaly and to Haiti. The Gretna congregation, which averages 220 at Sunday worship, previously underwrote scholarships for 53 students at the school, he said, and is prepared to repeat that action. Church members also donated bags of school supplies and are encouraging other congregations to do the same.

In mid-November, Smith will return to Haiti with an exploratory team representing several congregations, with the intention of looking at the needs of the community and adopting LaTremblay primary school.

He hopes to implement a long-range plan to improve the learning environment there. "We can make a difference," Smith said, noting that, as in the United States, education is the key to getting out of poverty. "If we can change a child's life, we can change that family's life."

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her at http://twitter.com/umcscribe.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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