The Church of Katrina

Yahoo News, AP

Sunday 19 February 2006, 1:17 pm

If it weren't for the faith-based groups helping out, the city of Waveland would be half the size it is now.

Katrina ravaged Mississippi's Gulf Coast, leaving roughly $125 billion in damage in its wake and nearly wiping some cities off the map. Waveland is still littered with massive amounts of debris, and police estimate fewer than 1,500 of its 6,600 residents have returned since the storm hit Aug. 29.

With government agencies stretched thin by the massive scope of the Gulf Coast recovery effort, groups from every conceivable religious denomination are shouldering a heavy share of the workload.

Amish and Mennonites are mucking out and rebuilding homes across the coast, with dozens living together at a religious-affiliated summer camp in Pass Christian. Lutheran and Islamic groups are providing free medical care to thousands in Biloxi. Southern Baptists have cooked an estimated 14 million meals in New Orleans and other hard-hit communities. The Salvation Army has had roughly 52,000 people working in Louisiana and Mississippi since the storm.

"We feel it's our duty to do it because it's God's work," said Amish volunteers who have gutted more than 300 homes in Waveland alone.

Tens of thousands of volunteers from hundreds of faith-based groups have poured into the region. That virtually bottomless well of labor makes them a valuable resource for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which helps coordinate their efforts to avoid duplication.

Volunteer groups have been the "only show in town" as the work shifted from emergency relief to long-term recovery and rebuilding, said Ken Skalitzky, FEMA's voluntary agency liaison for Mississippi, Alabama and six other states.

In December, FEMA doled out $66 million in Katrina-related grants for 10 social service and volunteer groups, including Catholic Charities, Episcopal Relief and Development, Lutheran Disaster Response and the United Methodist Foundation of Louisiana.

Amish volunteers, who rotate through Waveland every week or two, will be here for several years. They recently trucked in prefabricated homes for roughly 60 people, setting them up on property near the remnants of Gulfside United Methodist Assembly, a church retreat that Katrina leveled.