Volunteers from central Illinois continue to help rebuild Gulf Coast region

Scott Hilyard

Canton resident Phil Fleming pulled into the parking lot of a New Orleans church Wednesday afternoon.

He rode in a Ryder rental truck that contained about 900 books for a local library, boxes of clothes for anybody who needed any, 16 computers for a youth organization and two big-screen TVs for the church.

It was his 12th trip to the region in two years.

"The rebuilding of the Gulf Coast and New Orleans is a 10-year project, 10 years before it returns to a semblance of normal," said Fleming, natural disaster coordinator for the Episcopal Diocese of Quincy, which is based in Peoria. "And that’s if we don’t have another devastating storm in the meantime."

Wednesday marked the two-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina making landfall and ripping up America’s Gulf Coast.

Today marks the two-year anniversary of the beginning of the flooding in New Orleans. Though that city and others in the region eventually dried up, the flood of relief workers from across the country — including central Illinois — continues.

Ron Smith, an elder at The Evangelical Free Church in Canton, is preparing for his third trip south in November. He and other members of his team hope to bring along a semitrailer filled with items still needed by hurricane victims and the volunteers trying to help them.

"There’s a lot to be done, but the relief effort is impressive," Smith said. "I know the church in New Orleans where we go gets between 60 and 90 relief workers every day and that’s just one denomination. Lots of churches and groups like Habitat for Humanity and others are doing a lot of good work down there."

On Smith’s first visit in November 2006, he helped muck out the small home of a woman who lived on the first floor and ministered a church on its second floor in the flood-ravaged Lower 9th Ward. Sixteen months out from the hurricane and no one had stepped foot in the house, he said.

"We worked to clean it up, including ripping out the carpeting on the second-floor church," Smith said. "That’s how high the water was."

He won’t know what his role will be during his November trip until he gets there.

"They try to match skill sets with jobs," he said.

The central Illinois chapter of the American Red Cross no longer has local volunteers working on the Gulf Coast. The sister-city relationship it helped create between Peoria and Biloxi, Miss. — another city hit hard by Katrina — has mostly fallen silent.

"The last we heard was about a year ago, when they told us they could use a lot of bottled water. So we trucked down a lot of bottled water," said Vickie Parry, Red Cross spokeswoman. "The relationship was wonderful at the time and still exists. We stand ready to help them out in any way they ask."

Fleming, who arrived at the Church of the Annunciation in the Broadmoor neighborhood of New Orleans, said he has seen physical improvements during his 12 visits.

He also has seen despair.

"There’s still a lot of stress," Fleming said. "It’s a sad situation. The suicide rate is up. The murder rate is up. The police are understaffed. There is an air of optimism, but there is despair in others. I wear a (religious) collar and people seek me out to tell me their stories. I go home and need to decompress."

Scott Hilyard can be reached at (309) 686-3244 or