Build up the body of Christ. Support the Pentecost Offering.

Fifteen years after Katrina, many volunteers have made disaster response their lives


Many Presbyterian Disaster Assistance volunteers and staff started with 2005 Gulf hurricanes

May 25, 2021

A sign thanks volunteers who responded to hurricane Katrina. (Courtesy of Joan Otto)

Miss Mable had taken to her bed.

Her New Orleans home was badly damaged when Hurricane Katrina struck in the late summer of 2005. Then, unscrupulous contractors stole her funds to repair the house.

“She was so depressed,” said Joan Otto, who made numerous trips to Louisiana and Mississippi with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) following the twin blows of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. “She stayed in her home, which was below standards. I don’t even know that she had a working bathroom. I know her kitchen sink didn’t work.

“She had meals delivered. She never got out of bed. Finally, PDA found out about this through her church or something, and we went there, and started doing the work that needed to be done.”

It’s what Otto, who then lived in Michigan, felt called to do watching the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina unfold on TV in the weeks following the storm.

“It hurt my heart to see such devastation and pain,” Otto said. “I had to do something.”

South Carolinian Rick Turner had recently retired when Katrina hit, “and I just felt a very strong call to go,” he said, recalling work to recover when Hurricane Hugo hit the Carolinas in 1989.

In Dayton, Ohio, 15- year-old Cameron Stevens got her youth pastor to help talk her parents into letting her go down to the Gulf Coast for a Thanksgiving break trip to help respond to Katrina.

“I was definitely called to respond to the disaster after seeing it on the news,” Stevens said.

The Rev. Jim Kirk, PDA’s associate for Disaster Response in the U.S., says there are a lot of people like Otto, Turner, Stevens, and even himself who felt called to respond to the 2005 storms and in the following 15 years pursued disaster response as a career or as extremely active volunteers.

Otto, like many, became part of PDA’s National Response Team (NRT) and was dubbed by her husband, a Presbyterian minister, “the mission monster.” She has racked up dozens of deployments totaling a literal year of her life. Turner was Kirk’s predecessor overseeing national disaster response for PDA and continues to work as an NRT volunteer. And Stevens, now 30, is PDA’s Associate for Constituent Relations and Outreach.

“It was one of those transformational moments,” said Kirk, who was an NRT member at the time and ended up taking a three-month leave of absence from his church to help lead Katrina response. “We saw such growth with NRT after Katrina and Rita response.

“One of the great things about people of faith is that in the face of overwhelming need, there is a deep calling to respond in very practical ways.”

Recalling Katrina, Sandra Price said, “I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.” She couldn’t, really. “Jim Cantore was half a mile from my house,” Price, who had just recently moved to Gulfport, Mississippi, said referring to the Weather Channel anchor who tends to show up wherever the weather is about to get really bad.

As Katrina approached, the focus of her life was surgery after severely injuring her knee in a fall.

While she said many residents of her neighborhood stayed, considering the circumstances and that she was a bit new to facing hurricanes, she evacuated. And that was a good thing, because her home was destroyed in the storm.

“My dominant feeling was grace, grace, grace, because I couldn’t do anything for myself,” said Price, who documented her experience with Katrina in her book, “Katrina’s Grace: Wind, Water and Wisdom.” Price was blessed by family and friends who gave her places to stay, response groups that helped her rebuild and even the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

It was grace she quickly returned, first connecting with PDA as a liaison to her home presbytery, Sheppards & Lapsley in Central Alabama.

“I was essentially running a volunteer host site out of my FEMA trailer,” Price said.

Volunteer hosting is one of the aspects of PDA work that expanded greatly in the aftermath of Katrina, as volunteer teams from across the country made trips to the Gulf Coast to help. National Response Team membership expanded too, as many people felt the call to join.

Rich Copley, Communications Strategist, Presbyterian Mission Agency

Today’s Focus:  Presbyterian Disaster Assistance

Let us join in prayer for: 

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
D.J. Lee, Board of Pensions
Laura Lee, Presbyterian Women

Let us pray:

Dear Lord, make us faithful witnesses to the truth of the gospel. Enable us to be supportive communities that raise up the prophetic voices of those who speak forthrightly about just practice and compassionate action. Amen.

Creative_Commons-BYNCNDYou may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.

  • Subscribe to the PC(USA) News

  • Interested in receiving either of the PC(USA) newsletters in your inbox?

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.