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Local churches pitch in to help evacuees, Red Cross

When area churches and organizations received the call that Knoxville would receive evacuees from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina left the area under water, many responded to the call and got prepared.

Churches signed up as Red Cross shelters were told they would begin sheltering evacuees Tuesday, Sept. 6, and they were ready; but no one came until Friday, Sept. 9, when an estimated 300 evacuees were flown in.

In preparation, the Red Cross trained churches to run shelters, cots were set up and items such as pillows and toiletries were compiled to help evacuees feel at home.

Kathy Vail Smith, director of compassion ministries at Cedar Springs Presbyterian Church, said, “The Red Cross came and not only trained our congregation, but anybody that’s going to be volunteering at different shelters in Knoxville for the Knoxville Coliseum … and I don’t know how many people were here, but our sanctuary, which holds fifteen hundred, was packed. We had people in the aisles, we had people sitting in the floor, we had people all the way down our hall.”

Smith added, “We immediately started purchasing things that we needed like toiletry items, pillows; people have brought by donations, baby formula, diapers, anything somebody would need. We don’t need anymore. We have been overwhelmed by the generosity.”

Smith said Fellowship Evangelical Free Church and Two Rivers Church are also partnering with Cedar Springs to run the shelter one day a week.

“Everything at this point is taken care of,” she said.

As of Sunday, Sept. 11, most churches were still waiting for evacuees.

Chris Davis, spokesperson for the American Red Cross, said when the evacuees are first flown in, they are taken to the Knoxville Civic Coliseum where they receive a health screening.

When “we fill up the Coliseum, if we have more than three hundred and fifty, and from there, we will take the next folks after the first three-fifty to First Baptist Knoxville. Then I think they’ll be able to house about a hundred. And then from there, if that fills up, we have a shelter on standby at Cedar Springs Presbyterian Church and they’ve been wonderful. They’ve all been wonderful.”

Cokesbury United Methodist Church also is on standby as a Red Cross shelter, where Kim Nicolaus, director of outreach, said the church is staying “fluid” until it sees what is really needed.

Davis said Knoxville is a giving area, “it’s not just a cliché.”

He said he has heard evacuees who made it to the Knoxville area by bus, family or other means say to people on their cell phones, “Hey, you need to come to Knoxville because they’re helping us here.”

Knoxvillians said they would want the same in return.

Rose Fowler, a volunteer from Cokesbury said, “Even though our own house isn’t clean, we’re here to clean.”

She added, “I just feel so much for the people … everything they’ve lost and I’m willing to do whatever I can and give them some comfort.”

Tina Marshall, a Cedar Springs volunteer, added, “I feel like if this happened to us, what if no one came to our rescue? That’s what we’re here for.”

The response has been so overwhelming that the churches and the Red Cross are asking people to hold off on giving donations right now.

Davis said, “Just a general rule of thumb, if we have a specific need … we put out a call for that specifically.”

Davis said to those who still want to help now, “The next thing is if people want to help, the way I would recommend right now is to give money. I say that for two reasons, number one because not just here, but folks all over the Gulf region are going to need the help long term, I mean when we’re sitting down to eat Thanksgiving dinner, they’re still going to need help … and number two, a lot of people have donated great, great quantities of bottled water, baby food, you name it, diapers, all sorts of things.”

People who already have items gathered to donate are asked to take them to the Compassion Coalition rather than to the shelters. To find out more on how to donate to the Compassion Coalition, contact 865-251-1591.

Davis added smaller churches that want to open as shelters should first contact the Red Cross.

“They need to be wary of that because you get into issues of the health department … fire codes, safety violations and how you’re going to pay for all of the evacuees and their needs,” Davis said.

He added to people who want to open their homes to evacuees, “We can’t be the middle man in that, basically. There are a number of Web sites out there where people can register their home, but we can’t endorse that at all.”

Evacuees are expected to stay in Knoxville long-term, if not permanently. In Tennessee, 1,808 evacuee students have been registered for school in grades K-12. Counselors with the Department of Labor and Workforce Development are visiting shelters to assess evacuees’ job needs and provide assistance in finding work for people who want to stay in Tennessee.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has established a toll-free Hurricane Katrina hotline to accept public contributions. To donate, call 1-800-440-6728.

The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency is also requesting storm volunteers, but volunteers must get credentials before heading to the disaster area. For more information, call 615-741-1496.


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