By Joe Lee
JACKSON – Donovan Guilbeau, who installs power lines for Southern Electric Corporation and has seen many destructive tornadoes and hurricanes over four decades, said the EF-4 storm that ravaged the Mississippi communities of Rolling Fork and Silver City on March 24 caused the worst damage he’s ever seen.
“This reminded me of the Nagasaki bomb going off in World War II. It took my breath away,” said Guilbeau, a St. Richard parishioner is a long-time member of the St. Richard of Chichester Conference of the St. Vincent de Paul Society (SVDP), a national organization dedicated to feeding, clothing, and healing individuals and families in their time of need. “The damage and 26 lives lost were in a very concentrated area, and I knew we had to do something.”
Guilbeau has business associates who own property in the Rolling Fork area, and his wife has family nearby. In trying to assess what he could do to help, he turned to the St. Richard of Chichester Conference, one of five SVDP conferences in the District Council of the Diocese of Jackson (the others are St. Martin de Porres at Christ the King, St. Therese Conference, St. Joseph Conference at St. Mary Magdalene Parish in Greenville and St. Elizabeth of Hungary at Annunciation Parish in Columbus).
“I’m the St. Richard conference’s field representative for Rolling Fork and Silver City,” Guilbeau said. “Once the site was secured by the local police and the fire department, Tommy Jordan, a fellow St. Richard conference member, and I invited Carrie Robinson, president of the District of Jackson Council, to go with us.
“In this case, the news media did not blow the destruction out of proportion. I became a news reporter of sorts for SVDP, telling them what we were seeing on the ground.”
Robinson, a member of Christ the King Parish, said that all five SVDP conferences in the Jackson council eagerly came together: food and clothing was delivered from the Greenville conference, and financial assistance from the Columbus conference was provided to St. Helen’s Catholic Church in Amory to support nine families that suffered tornado damage the same weekend as the Rolling Fork storm hit.
“I ordered 875 hygiene kits from Disaster Services Corporation, which is the SVDP service arm,” Robinson said. “SVDP deployed case workers for a period of two weeks and began assisting residents of Rolling Fork and Silver City.
“The St. Richard conference donated $10,000 toward the relief efforts, which made it possible for us to serve one hot meal a day to 500-700 people for those two weeks. We also received a Rapid Response Grant from SVDP for $5,000, and a $5,000 grant from Isagenix Foundation.”
The grant money has gone toward Walmart gift cards, which have been handed out to storm victims in amounts of $25 and $50 to purchase food, clothing and other basic needs. But Dianne Clark, the Southeastern U.S. Disaster Rep for SVDP, said that one of the best things volunteers can do is listen to the victims’ stories and encourage them to talk.
“Each time you relate what you went through, it gets a little easier to talk about. Don’t keep it bottled up inside,” said Clark, who is based in Bradenton, Florida, and has seen plenty of hurricane damage in her decade-plus of SVDP service. “We’ll talk 20-30 minutes with each person to let them get things off their chests.
“It’s especially difficult if you’ve lost family members – there was one man on crutches who told us he’d just lost his mother and grandmother. Another woman said she and her husband lived in a mobile home, and her husband climbed on top of her to protect her. They survived, but the woman was horrified to find that when she looked over at the site where her sister’s mobile home was, it was gone. The sister’s body was found later, unfortunately.
First Baptist Church of Rolling Fork became a central feeding and recovery location for disaster survivors in the immediate aftermath of the storm.
“Pastor Britt Williamson was bringing in counselors to help the victims when we were there,” Clark said. “It’s so important to get children to open up as well as the adults. We give candy to them, try to get them to talk. They’re deeply impacted by what they’ve gone through.”
The inclination by so many goodhearted people once they learn of horrific storm damage is to organize drives to deliver food, clothing, supplies and even furniture. Some even hop in their cars and drive straight to the disaster site, eager to offer whatever help they can.
But despite the best of intentions, those spontaneous acts of generosity can create additional problems. Clark pointed out that when truckloads of furniture and clothing are sent at the very beginning of the recovery, there’s often nowhere to put them because homes and buildings have been destroyed.
“There’s an urge to go in and provide resources without asking,” Robinson said. “The greatest thing we can do is allow those in need to have some dignity, and say to them, ‘We are not the experts. Tell us how we can help you. What is it that you need?’”
Robinson just led a team of volunteers from the St. Richard and Christ the King conferences to Silver City on May 18 to partner with the Mississippi Department of Health and Human Services.
“DHS asked if we could help them feed the residents,” Robinson said. “They’re doing outreach for seniors and the disabled whose services – such as Meals on Wheels – were disrupted because of the storm. We purchased burgers, beans, chips and drinks to serve lunch, and we were also there to find out if there were additional needs from residents, such as those still without electricity.”
Guilbeau and SVDP volunteers all over the Jackson Council will gladly continue to help out in Rolling Fork and Silver City as long as it takes, and in whatever ways are needed – including through spiritual nourishment.
“We have a project called Home in a Box that provides furniture to homes that are being rebuilt,” he said. “The short-term need was for feeding; the long-term need is to rebuild. This is long-haul healing.”
“When we met with Pastor Williamson, he indicated that a lot of Rolling Fork residents are renters,” Robinson said. “Going forward, one of the needs will be to see how we can assist them in moving from renting to home ownership, which creates more stability in the community.
“But the most important thing we’ve done for our friends there – and the most important thing we can continue to do – is pray for them.”
To learn more about SVDP, visit svdpusa.org.