Mike Anderson monitored the destruction of Hurricane Dorian on the news in recent weeks, pondering the massive reconstruction efforts that would be needed in the years ahead.
Anderson is a leader of St. Philip's Disaster Relief, a Fridley-based group that takes a different approach to helping devastated communities. The St. Philip's team enters the scene about a year after a hurricane, tornado or flood, and rebuilds the homes of still-displaced families.
The team, now in its 14th year, has helped in the aftermath of disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Ike and the massive floods in Minot, N.D. It is preparing now to travel to the Houston area to reconstruct homes of several families hit by 2017's Hurricane Harvey, which caused $124 billion in damages in Texas.
"We have our own tools, we cook our own meals, we've got people with construction experience," said Anderson, a retired hydrologist. "That gets the ball rolling right away."
The group is planning its Houston trip even as a fresh round of flooding blasts the state this week.
The Rev. Deb Grant, a recently retired Lutheran minister in Texas who invited St. Philip's team to Houston, said such a seasoned disaster relief team is a godsend to regional leaders overseeing reconstruction efforts.
Many people who want to volunteer are brimming with a passion to help, she said. But they don't necessarily have the skills needed on the ground.
"Part of [St. Philip's] uniqueness is this is not their first rodeo," Grant said. "And they're willing to wait until the storm has passed and be part of that all-important second wave of help."
The project is an outreach ministry of St. Philip's Lutheran Church in Fridley. It got off the ground in 2006, prompted by the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Six months after the hurricane landed, a half-dozen volunteers drove to Ocean Springs, Miss., where they rebuilt homes.
The group now organizes two weeklong trips each year to a disaster area. Some members also do one-day volunteer blitzes to Minnesota communities with emergency needs. Between weeklong and daylong projects, St. Philip's members have supported 75 projects, said Renee Johnson, who has been on every major trip with the group.
Packing tools, trailer
This week, the group was preparing for its Oct. 5 trip to Houston. Anderson and Johnson loaded ladders and big plastic tubs into one of their travel trailers. Each tub was marked with its contents, such as electrical, painting, Sheetrock.
Meanwhile, member Dawn Young is already thinking about the meals she'll prepare for the group. She will order the groceries online at a store in Houston, and the team will pick them up there before it heads to the retreat center where members will stay, Anderson said.
The group's online diary from a May trip to Galveston, Texas, explains a typical day.
"We worked hard today," the journal said. "We had over half the team at one home. It was a little tight at times as people were installing doors, adding devices to the many electric boxes, tracing wires, figuring out what to do when we lost power, installing cupboards, staining and varnishing hundreds of feet of trim and baseboard."
Over the years, about 175 people have volunteered their time to such projects, Johnson said. Teams are usually about 28 to 30 people. Initially, most volunteers were St. Philip's church members, but over the years friends, co-workers and family have joined in as well,
It's a low-budget operation. The volunteer relief team camps out in a church or religious center, where members sleep in Sunday school rooms and social halls and cook in the church kitchen.
Their work is financed through an annual church lasagna fundraiser and silent auction, plus other donations throughout the year, Anderson said.
The crew has worked in Mississippi, Texas, New Jersey and Florida after hurricanes; in Minnesota, Iowa, Tennessee, North Dakota, Colorado and Missouri to restore homes after flooding; in Colorado in the aftermath of wildfires; and in Minnesota, Oklahoma and Wisconsin rebuilding after tornadoes.
Grant, who worked with the group in Galveston, thinks St. Philip's model deserves replication.
"I really don't understand why we don't have many more of these groups around the country," Grant said. "Even if it was just a week a year, it would make a world of difference."
As the departure date nears for the Houston trip, volunteers are gathering sleeping bags, work boots, tools and clothes for the journey. They'll leave from St. Philip's Church at 7 a.m. on a Saturday and arrive in Houston the next day at 4 p.m.
Said Anderson: "Monday morning, we'll be on the job site at 8 a.m."
Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511