“Franklin Graham, when Katrina first hit, said he wanted an army of chaplains to go out to the neighborhoods to meet with the victims of this disaster,” recalls Rapid Response Team deployment manager Keith Stiles. “There was a massive buildup of our ranks to increase the size of the Rapid Response Team (RRT) so we would have hundreds of chaplains who could respond to disaster.”
The Rapid Response Team deployed to so many locations along the Gulf Coast throughout Louisiana and Mississippi, says Stiles, “I think at one point we had 10 to 12 base camps, and were running approximately 90 chaplains a week during the first six months of that disaster.”
Katrina marked the beginning of his own connection with the RRT, explains Stiles. “I sent in my application after reading an ad in Decision magazine. Within a matter of days, they asked me if I could respond to Biloxi, Mississippi. I went three weeks later.”
Although Stiles had been a police officer for 25 years and had seen many other disasters, what met him in the Gulf Coast “was the most incredible scene of devastation” he had ever witnessed. “We drove along the Gulf Coast from Biloxi to Gulfport,” he remembers. “It was incredible to see these ships and huge barges that were 500-600 yards inland, and skyscrapers that had 40-foot-high holes in them. You would see ovens and refrigerators in trees–and it just went on for miles and miles. I had never seen anything on that scale.”
“Katrina Changed My Life and Direction”
Stiles counts it a privilege and honor that he got to meet with victims who were trying to put their lives back together. “They had lost jobs, homes and every earthly possession, but we offered them hope through the Lord Jesus. It changed my life and changed my direction.”
Stiles had been working at a food pantry at his local church, but those efforts paled in comparison. He began volunteering more and more with the Rapid Response Team. Within two years, he began working part time as a chaplain coordinator. Two years after that, he moved to Charlotte and began working full time for the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team, “all because of my experience with Hurricane Katrina.”
In his role as the RRT deployment manager, Stiles is keeping a watchful eye on Hurricane Earl as it swirls in the Atlantic. “Even while we continue our ongoing ministry in Haiti–having two camps set up there for another six to 12 months, we still look at every tropical depression that develops.”
Whether on the Atlantic seaboard or the Gulf Coast, the Rapid Response Team is prepared for another hurricane season. “We have our mobile command centers, our vehicles and chaplain coordinators who are not responding in and out of Haiti,” Stiles adds, “prepared to respond to any hurricane, tornado, flood or manmade disaster.”
Franklin Graham Remembers
Writing one year after Katrina hit, Graham lauded the work of the RRT. “In the midst of the turmoil, the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team has worked almost nonstop for the past 12 months, personally sharing God’s comfort and hope. More than 1,300 chaplains, working in teams, have visited homes and neighborhoods, praying with the devastated victims. We’ve also been able to work with first responders and schools across the region.
“More than 2,000 people have made decisions for Christ, and tens of thousands more have been encouraged in their faith,” said Graham.
“When a disaster like Katrina strikes, we go in the Name of Jesus Christ, put our arms around those who are suffering, and tell them of God’s grace and strength to see them through their trials.
“I don’t understand all the reasons for suffering,” he continued, “but I do know that we have a Savior who Himself has suffered on our behalf for our sins. He has felt and experienced pain, sorrow and grief, and He invites us to come to Him so that we can ‘receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need’ (Hebrews 4:16, NIV).”
Graham concluded, “Our Rapid Response Team will continue to minister in Christ’s Name in shattered towns and communities across the Gulf Coast in the months to come. Many residents still feel a great weariness of soul, but we thank God for the opportunity to share the love of our Savior, knowing that “nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Cf. Romans 8:39).
Please pray for anyone who continues to suffer in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, even five years later.