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Hurricanes damage UU churches, homes in Texas

Sense of “normalcy” destroyed for many repeat hurricane victims.
By Donald E. Skinner
9.22.08

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Unitarian Universalists on the Gulf Coast have been hit hard by twin hurricanes this month. The most recent damage came September 13, when Hurricane Ike pummeled Galveston and Houston, Texas, with wind and rain, damaging many homes as well as several congregational buildings.

The earlier hurricane, Gustav, came ashore September 1, damaging the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge.

Recovery efforts this week are focusing on Galveston Island and the Houston area. The Rev. Susan Smith, district executive for the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Southwestern Conference, said many members of the Galveston and Houston-area congregations had severe damage to their homes, and several families were homeless. Amazingly, the building of the UU Fellowship of Galveston County, just blocks from the Gulf of Mexico, was undamaged, despite a huge amount of damage all across the island.

The home of Susan Persons, president of the Galveston congregation, was flooded. Persons said all members of the congregation were believed to be safe.

A wall of a building under construction for the Henry David Thoreau UU Congregation in Stafford, a Houston suburb, blew down in the storm. The congregation’s current building had minor water damage. The First UU Church and Emerson UU Church both had damage from roof leaks. The Unitarian Fellowship of Houston had water damage to two religious education rooms.

The Northwoods UU Church in The Woodlands, another Houston suburb, had debris to clean up and a flooded parking lot, but no apparent damage to its building. The Bay Area UU Church, which plans to dedicate a new wing in a few weeks, escaped damage, said the Rev. Dr. Matt Tittle. It held a prayer service Wednesday night.

Thousands of Gulf Coast residents evacuated in advance of Ike. Power went out during the storm and remained out a week later in much of the Houston-Galveston area. Staff members of many congregations were checking on parishioners at midweek, a process made difficult by the fact that many had evacuated and not yet returned.

The Unitarian Fellowship of Longview, Texas, east of Dallas, was damaged when two pine trees fell on the entrance.


The Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge, the “mother church” of the UU relief effort after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, suffered serious roof damage and interior water damage from Hurricane Gustav on September 1, and Hurricane Ike exacerbated that damage. The church also lost six large trees. Repair costs are estimated at between $25,000 and $50,000, said Diana Dorroh, the congregation’s program director.

Dorroh said the church’s insurance deductible is so high that insurance likely will not cover the loss and that will probably be true for many homeowners as well. She said about 10 percent of members had damage to their homes. The home of at least one member was destroyed and other UU families were forced to move out of their houses.

In 2005 members of the church were among the first volunteers to help the hard-hit New Orleans congregations. The church coordinated the flow of UU volunteers into New Orleans for more than a year, and church members took many New Orleaneans into their homes. Three years later, members continue to actively work on the restoration of New Orleans.


Most New Orleans UUs evacuated the city in advance of Hurricane Gustav. The Rev. Melanie Morel-Ensminger of First UU Church of New Orleans estimated that 97 percent of her members left.

She said there was “scattered damage” to homes from Gustav, including broken windows and trees. The church sustained about $800 in damage, she said, from broken windows and water. A church renter quickly made repairs, preventing further damage. The church’s large street-side sign, which was in the process of being redesigned and replaced, also blew away.

Morel-Ensminger added, “The biggest damage from Gustav and Ike was to the fragile sense of ‘normalcy’ and safety that had been so carefully built up over the three years since Katrina. There have been signs that many people in the church are experiencing a relapse of post-Katrina post traumatic stress disorder symptoms; several people have sought pastoral care for depression, nightmares, and anxiety—all much more common in the time immediately after Katrina. Congregants seem even more tender and sensitive, and more prone to feeling overwhelmed and burned out.”

Jyaphia Christos-Rogers, past president of the congregation, added, ”We’re just plain hurricane weary. We had to postpone a commemoration dinner for the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, but right now there is not a tremendous desire to do it. We just want a rest from emergency preparedness, the whole subject of storms and loss.”

The Rev. Jim VanderWeele, minister of Community Church UU in New Orleans, which was flooded by a levee break after Hurricane Katrina but only recently torn down, said he is grateful that the levees held after Gustav.

He said public officials were much more responsive than they were after Katrina. “They accomplished more in the first five days post-Gustav than the first five months post-Katrina. And with much less anguish in the process.

It will take three more years, he said, before the levees are completely rebuilt.

A storm repair fund for the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge has been set up and donations are invited. Details are on the church website, unitarianchurchbr.com. Contributions may be sent to Unitarian Church Repair, 8470 Goodwood Blvd., Baton Rouge, LA 70806. For information on the relief and recovery efforts in Galveston, Houston, and elsewhere, go to the website of the Southwestern Conference, swuuc.org.


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