By Wendy Healy
In the eight years since Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, Lutheran volunteers have worked more than 1 million service hours to refurbish approximately 2,500 damaged homes.
A large portion of these volunteer efforts were coordinated by Camp Victor Ministries, a house reconstruction program founded at Christus Victor Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in Ocean Springs, Miss.
From its inception during the post-Katrina relief effort to assisting with clean-up and reconstruction after Hurricane Isaac, Camp Victor Ministries has coordinated more than 50,000 volunteers.
Now Camp Victor Ministries is changing its focus and transitioning from a volunteer housing, case management and construction ministry to a disaster preparedness program.
“We’re phasing out of construction and volunteer management,” says Suzie Harvey, who directs the program. “We’re focusing on trying to do asset mapping and planning with congregations so we can know ahead of time what congregations will — and can — do after a disaster.”
An urgent beginning
The work of Camp Victor was originally made possible because of congregations.
Suzie was working as the administrator at Christus Victor when Katrina struck in 2005. Originally, the congregation provided disaster services, including a Red Cross shelter, food program, distribution center, case management and volunteer coordination.
Then in June 2006 the disaster recovery operations were moved to an old sewing factory and Camp Victor became a separate ministry supported by Lutheran Disaster Response and Lutheran Episcopal Services in Mississippi, a collaborative social ministry to which the ELCA Southeastern Synod belongs.
At the height of its work, Camp Victor had a staff of 15 to 20 construction, volunteer and case managers. The ministry was so active that out-of-town volunteers were lodged in a building provided to the ministry by the county.
As the focus of the relief efforts have changed, though, Camp Victor now needs to change with it. “What’s changed over time,” Suzie says, “is that the houses that are still left from Katrina are the hardest to renovate.” She estimates that 150,000 to 175,000 houses are still uninhabitable in the Gulf Coast area.
Preparing for the future
Going forward, Camp Victor, which will be run by its volunteer board, is partnering with local congregations in an interfaith program. It will position itself as a disaster preparedness and educational program, focusing on helping Lutheran congregations and ecumenical partners better prepare for storms.
“Resources aren’t going to come in like what happened after Katrina,” she says. “So much money came in that people didn’t have to work together. It was like we had our own toys and no one had to share. For the benefit of the future, we need to learn to share resources.”
Suzie is very grateful for the funding over the years from Lutheran Disaster Response, congregations, and individual donors, as well as for Camp Victor’s committed volunteers. “I feel good that Camp Victor as a ministry isn’t going away,” she says. “The problem in the disaster world,” she adds with a smile, “is that you work yourself out of a job.”
“We’re very thankful to God for the wonderful ministry provided by Camp Victor,” says Michael Stadie, who directs the Lutheran Disaster Response program in the U.S. “The staff did a great job of helping volunteers from all over the country, as well as serving the people in their community impacted by disasters. We wish for them God’s richest blessings in this time of transition into a new way of service.”
Wendy Healy is an ELCA member and owner of Griffin Communications in Danbury, Conn.