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Hurricane Relief, with Pumpkins

November 9, 2018 by

a smiling boy with a pumpkin

I recently had the opportunity to go to Georgia for two weeks with the American Red Cross to help with the damage from Hurricane Michael. By now everyone has seen the pictures of Mexico Beach, and Panama City, and the devastation caused there by the hurricane, but not as many are aware of the devastation and destruction that swept across southwest Georgia at the same time. One responder described it as if a tornado eighty miles wide and 280 miles long crossed the state.

Most of the damage was caused by trees falling on houses and utilities. Southern Georgia is an area of pines, oaks, and pecans and most of those trees are old and very large. As the winds of Michael battered the region for hour after long frightening hour, many homes in the area suffered damage from falling limbs and trees. One home I visited had a three-foot-diameter oak tree completely crushing the bedroom of a young boy with cerebral palsy. Another house had the top of an eighteen-inch yellow pine impaled through the roof. A trailer home was neatly sliced into two pieces by a fallen trunk.

As the people fled from the devastation, the American Red Cross mobilized to establish emergency shelters for those impacted by the storm. One of the only buildings large enough to house everyone in that region was the Civic Center in Albany, GA. For several nights up to two hundred people crowded on to the arena floor on Red Cross cots and Red Cross blankets, but no privacy.

But since the inexorable beat of business marches on – the concerts and conventions that had been scheduled months in advance were still pending – the shelter had to move. So I went to assist in relocating the families and children to a second shelter several miles outside of town.

cotton field destroyed by Hurricane MichaelGeorgia cotton field destroyed by the storm

For seven days I worked at a shelter known as Second Mt. Zion, the name of the hosting church who graciously and generously provided the gym of their Family Life Center as a temporary home for those seeking shelter.

Some staff went early to set things up, and people began arriving at ten in the morning, our “family” of residents in two city buses that had been chartered to transport them, plus an armada of social workers, health workers, chaplains, and emergency response vehicles loaded with hot food provided by the Southern Baptist Mobile Emergency Kitchen.

As the days passed the children went back to school, and parents began the tedious process of trying to find new housing. A dedicated staff of caseworkers spent up to thirteen hours each day searching for apartments or houses for rent, while also trying to assist in locating the funds for the first and last month’s rent that every landlord requires as a security deposit. Many of the landlords even were charging a fee just to fill out a rental application and look at the site.

When the weekend arrived, school was out and the children were all “home” at the shelter. But since their parents were still desperately trying to find secure housing, some of us looked after the kids. So how do you entertain twelve kids in an unnatural environment for several hours?

Enter the pumpkins!

Sue, a nurse from Colorado, who was helping with childcare, disappeared and about an hour later arrived back at the shelter with nine pumpkins, some scoopers and carvers, and a box of LED candles.

For the next hour, the seeds and pumpkin intestines were gleefully flung across our “dining area” as the children worked to scoop out the insides of their pumpkins.

Kids carving pumpkins

When the children had scraped the insides of their pumpkins clean, we gave them crayons to draw faces on the pumpkins. The younger ones had a staff member cut the faces, but several of the older ones developed their sculpture skills and carved their own. Other residents came and watched and some helped. When the project was done and the floor had been swept and mopped, we gathered for a group photograph.

That night as the “shelter head count” was called in to Disaster Headquarters in Albany, someone reported nine new occupants of Mt. Zion shelter. This generated a frantic call as to why so many had arrived so long after the storm, when we were still desperately trying to find homes for the folks we already had. Fortunately, headquarters was reassured that the new occupants were all fairly inanimate, all on the table, and all orange.

Group with Jackolanterns

That night the twinkling eyes of nine jack-o-lanterns sparkled over the green cots and red crossed blankets of Mt. Zion shelter, and a dozen happy children slept. Two days later a church in the area booked a block of hotel rooms and pledged to cover the expenses for all five families until they had secured permanent housing.


David Burleson lives at New Meadow Run, a Bruderhof in southwest Pennsylvania, with his wife, Teresa. David works as a carpenter when he’s not volunteering with the Red Cross.

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