Shuttle cleanup continues

As Columbia space shuttle debris recovery continues across Texas and Louisiana, faith-based organizations offer support.

BY MARCIA DAVIS | LUFKIN, Texas | February 15, 2003

"We haven't identified a need that has not been met."

—David Passey

As Columbia space shuttle debris recovery and collection work continues across Texas and Louisiana under the direction of the National Space and Aeronautics Administration and coordination of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, faith-based organizations across the piney woods of East Texas continue to gird operations with strong support.

As lead agency for the search, FEMA has been coordinating the search in East Texas and Louisiana from a Disaster Field Office in Lufkin using personnel from 15 federal agencies and 17 state agencies.

FEMA public affairs officer David Passey said recovery and collection operations will continue at the same force level for week three of the search efforts, but community support efforts would be relieved by federal resources in what he described as a "phased effort."

"We are bringing in more of the U. S. Forest Service Land Management teams to help replace some of the local officials rotating to normal responsibilities and for some of the National Guard troops going home," Passey said. About 245 workers are arriving in relief crews, according to Passey.

"When we bring in the federal crews we'll bring in their resources," Passey said. A base camp in Nacogdoches would eventually take over feeding and housing the workers, according to the FEMA spokesman.

In the meantime, across what Angelina County Sheriff Kent Henson described as "God's country," the Texas Division of The Salvation Army and an area-wide alliance of more than 40 church denominations have served as a hub for much of the community support, with church members supplying hot meals and snacks, doing laundry for the workers and housing them.

Of the community support, Passey said, "We haven't identified a need that hasn't been met."

First Baptist Church in San Augustine, a small community northeast of Lufkin, has been providing meals and housing to more than 100 recovery workers since the Tuesday following the shuttle disaster. The church's senior pastor, the Rev. David Burcham, said East Texas had a dress rehearsal for this last spring when evacuees from the hurricanes along the Texas coast drove inland to seek shelter in the Lufkin area.

"Shortly after the shuttle breakup, emergency teams contacted us requesting use of our gymnasium facilities. We have made our church shower, kitchen and bathroom facilities available to the National Guardsmen," Burcham said.

"We are treating the workers as if they are our sons," the pastor said. "We are taking it a day at a time and we are available for whatever they need for as long as they need us."

Mark Gipson, First United Methodist Church of Lufkin's director of Christian recreation, said his church is providing its Christian Life Center gymnasium and game room facilities "to help give the workers a break." Gipson said First Assembly of God, First Baptist and Harmony Hill churches were also offering recreational facilities.

Rev. Mike Hunter of First Christian Church in Lufkin said the church members were sending hot meals and casseroles to the command center the first few days of the search, and now are collecting vans full of nourishing snack foods for the recovery workers. "The Salvation Army workers told us the recovery workers were moving out at 7 a.m. and not coming back from the woods until evening. They were getting a good breakfast but nothing else until evening, so we have been taking health drinks, granola bars, candy bars, fresh fruits, bottled water and soft drinks to the command sites for the workers to take in their day packs."

First Presbyterian Church pastor, the Rev. Jacqueline Hannan, said her congregation has been contributing to the meal and snack provisions. She said the Boy Scout troops sponsored by the church have also been providing recovery search support.

Word of Life Church Elder John Thornton said more than 500 Valentine cookies hot out of the church kitchen's ovens had been taken to the recovery workers.

Captain Bryan C. Gray of Austin, with the National Guard's 6th Civil Support Team, said he was thankful for the hundreds of people he had seen offering assistance to him and the recovery teams. "It has really been overwhelming," he said.

First Baptist Church of Lufkin Associate Pastor Aubrey Knox said NASA officials called a few days after the disaster to request a memorial service for the recovery workers. On February 8, the church, just across the street from the initial recovery command center, hosted the memorial service attended by hundreds of federal, state and local officials and volunteer workers. NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe, astronaut Jeff Ashby, Texas Governor Rick Perry and local Carpenters Way Church pastor Rick Williams addressed the group.

The American Tract Society, based in Garland, Tex., donated several thousand quick response gospel tracts on the Columbia disaster for the memorial service and to The Salvation Army meal sites.

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