From Florida to Philippines, Chaplains Ministering in Disaster Aftermath

By   •   May 16, 2014

louisville miss
Rapid Response Team chaplains offer encouragement to a woman in Louisville, Miss., where deadly tornadoes ripped through at the end of April.

From severe flooding on the Florida Panhandle to dangerous wildfires in Southern California, several parts of the US are dealing with disaster. Add the recent, deadly tornadoes that swept across the South, and it becomes clear Americans have had a lot to deal with this spring.

Al New manages deployments for the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team, a ministry that sends crisis-trained chaplains to disaster sites in the aftermath of natural and man-made catastrophes. He went from a relatively calm start to the year “to everything happening at one time.”

As of Friday, the Rapid Response Team has five active deployments, from Mississippi all the way to the Philippines.

Born out of the horrific events of 9/11, the network of chaplains has now offered emotional and spiritual care in response to more than 175 disasters, from fires to floods to mass shootings.

When tornadoes struck multiple states a few weeks ago, chaplains were quickly sent to five different locations in four states.

Al New and his wife, Toni, were initially headed to Arkansas with the Rapid Response Team’s new mobile unit when they were suddenly rerouted to Mississippi. Pushing through stormy weather along their path, they arrived in Louisville, Miss., shortly after a deadly, mile-wide tornado pummeled the town.

New described it as “total destruction.”

“It was a miniature Joplin, Missouri.” he said. “It was like looking at a lumberyard that exploded.”

Since the chaplains deployed at the end of April, they have prayed with more than 1,000 people in the Louisville area, including a woman who lost her home in the tornado and a group of doctors and nurses working in a makeshift medical clinic.

Thanks to the mobile unit, chaplains were able to go into the heart of the disaster site where residents could find them if they wanted to talk.

“People were just coming to the truck left and right for ministry,” New said. “It just put us right there where everybody was, in the middle of the community.”

Ministry is continuing in Louisville, as well as Mayflower, Ark., and Athens, Ala., which were also hit hard by tornadoes. Deployments recently wrapped up in Vilonia, Ark., and Baxter Springs, Kan.

The same storm system that spawned so many twisters also led to massive flooding along the Gulf Coast. More than 1,000 buildings flooded in the Pensacola, Fl., area after almost two feet of rain fell in one day. Kate Poll, a chaplain from nearby Orange Beach, Ala., is leading the Rapid Response Team in Pensacola as they partner with Samaritan’s Purse.

In addition to the four active deployment sites in the US, a pair of chaplains has begun to minister to pastors and others still suffering from the Nov. 2013 typhoon that devastated the Philippines. Typhoon Haiyan, also known as Typhoon Yolanda, killed more than 6,200 people with thousands still missing and scores of others injured.

Barb and Leo Grabowski from South Carolina have responded to some of the worst disasters of the past decade, including the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan. They also deployed to Superstorm Sandy in 2012 and the Shawnee, Okla., tornado outbreak of 2013. Now, at the invitation of the churches in the Philippines, they’re offering spiritual and emotional care to people who are still picking up the pieces from the typhoon.

“The pastors have lost so much that they’re broken down now, financially and spiritually,” New said. “The pastors say that they’re so happy to see Billy Graham chaplains, and to know the people in the US still remember them.”

Please keep the chaplains in your prayers as they continue to minister to people who are hurting. Check back with for the latest news on any additional deployments.

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