CWN.org -- As Hurricane Gustav made landfall southwest of New Orleans, faith-based organizations are poised to begin serving the nearly 2 million evacuees who have fled the storm's path.
Col. Mike Edmondson, Louisiana state police commander, said he believed that 90 percent of the population had fled the Louisiana coast. The exodus of 1.9 million people is the largest evacuation in state history, and thousands more had left from Mississippi, Alabama and flood-prone southeast Texas.
Late Sunday, Gov. Bobby Jindal issued one last plea to the roughly 100,000 people still left on the coast: "If you've not evacuated, please do so. There are still a few hours left."
Churches in north and central Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee, and as far north as Oklahoma City are opening their doors to evacuees.
In Little Rock, Moody Chapel AME church received 20 evacuees on Saturday, and expects as many as 400. The Rev. Hezekiah Stewart told the local Fox News channel, "What this means to me basically is an opportunity to show the love of Jesus Christ."
Two Rivers Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee, is prepared to take in up to 300 evacuees. Mark Helstein, the church's facilities manager, was notified Thursday that the church might be needed as a shelter.
"This is the third or fourth time we've partnered with Red Cross for disaster relief," Helstein said. "This isn't new to us, but it's always kind of new each time. We're ready."
In Baton Rouge, Broadmoor United Methodist Church is giving food and shelter to relief workers who will begin working in the hardest-hit areas as soon as the storm clears.
Disaster News Service reports that more than 200 workers slept on cots in the church auditorium and the parking lot is holding 20 Red Cross emergency response vehicles.
"We didn't have this opportunity last time," one minister said. "The storm was here before we got the chance. This time it's different."
Christian relief organizations are prepared to begin serving the evacuees. Operation Blessing is ready to move in with food, relief supplies and heavy equipment. The ministry pre-positioned resources over the weekend to be ready to move when the storm subsided, according to Jody Herrington, director of U.S. disaster relief operations for the humanitarian organization.
The Salvation Army has requested the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief organization to be ready to prepare and serve more than 600,000 meals a day.
"As soon as we can get the wind down low enough to travel we'll go in," said volunteer coordinator Micky Caison, adding that volunteers already are preparing food at pre-event shelters in Arkansas, Mississippi and Texas.
The Southern Baptists are among the three largest relief groups in the nation, equipped with 85,000 trained disaster relief volunteers and 1,500 disaster relief units.
The Salvation Army has already served more than 100,000 meals throughout the gulf coast area as a result of Hurricane Gustav. This includes food service for evacuees, volunteers and other first responders who are helping in the evacuation. The ministry has more than 100 mobile feeding units, two 54-foot mobile kitchens and multiple fixed feeding sites at its Corps and other outposts throughout the region.
The Army's total current feeding capability from Texas to Florida is more than 560,000 meals per day. On Sunday, the Army set up feeding sites on evacuation routes, including at the Alabama Welcome Center on Interstate 20/59. And, it provided lunch and dinner for 300 bus drivers at a site near Hattiesburg, MS. It has multiple other locations open through Texas and the surrounding states.
In addition, the Army has staging areas in Hattiesburg and Tyler, TX to support the gulf coast. Volunteers, staff and vehicles are converging on those locations to wait for deployment with other equipment and supplies. The Army also has a number of shelters open throughout the region, including five shelters operating in Texas, with others potentially available.
Seattle-based World Vision has readied emergency supplies in Picayune, Miss., with several truckloads of additional goods on standby in Dallas, Los Angeles, and other U.S. locations.
"We're making the most of this early warning time to prepare," said John Pettit, director of World Vision's domestic disaster response. "Our staff in Mississippi and Texas have been contacting dozens of churches and community groups that we've partnered with since Katrina to let them know we want to stand by them for Gustav and help them serve the most vulnerable in their communities," he said.
"We're in full preparation mode here," said Audrey Black, manager of World Vision's Storehouse in Picayune, Miss., some 50 miles from New Orleans. "We have been seeing long lines at gas stations and stores as people stock up on necessities - but not everyone can afford to stock up. World Vision's priority is to make sure we're ready to help the region's low-income and forgotten populations."
"We're hoping and praying that Gustav spares the Gulf Coast - but we know from experience that we have to be ready for a worst-case scenario," said Pettit.
Sources: The Associated Press, Tennesseean.com, Disaster News Network, World Vision, Baptist Press, Operation Blessing, The Salvation Army.