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After Gustav, Baptists bring reassurance

BATON ROUGE, La. (BP)–Michael Desmond begins to cry when he tells the story.

“At 9:30 I heard the first tree crack and fall. By 12 o’clock, trees — large trees — were falling left and right” as Hurricane Gustav uprooted or snapped in half large oaks in a park across the way in Baton Rouge, La.

Michael, his wife Lisa and their 16-month-old son Aiden hunkered down in a hallway.

“I was trying to tell Lisa, ‘This is a strong house, it’s well-built, it’ll hold.'”

Then the house “just shook.”

Three days after Hurricane Gustav made landfall, Baton Rouge still looked tossed around, with residents picking up the debris from winds that reached 100 mph. Downed trees littered yards and covered numerous houses, light poles were toppled, power lines sagged. Most gas stations were closed, and the open stations experienced chaos as residents lined up to fill their tanks.

Because 90 percent of the city was without power, so were the traffic lights — a development that made traveling even a few miles an hour-long ordeal. Amid rising tensions caused by scarce resources, people scrambled for bags of ice and cases of water.

“First we had Andrew then Katrina,” said John Low, a homeowner who watched as a recovery unit from the Virginia Baptist Mission Board (VBMB) applied their chainsaws to a large uprooted oak that had torn out his water line. “This is the worst damage we’ve experienced.”

For the Desmonds, Gustav was the first hurricane they had ever experienced. For more than three hours, the world around them swirled in a fury of wind and 100-year-old wood.

As their house shook, Michael recounted. “We sat there in the hallway and prayed off and on for three hours. The longest three hours of my life.”

Once Gustav passed by, all was quiet.

Salvation Army, American Red Cross and Southern Baptist disaster relief units from eight state conventions then followed into the area, setting up command centers and feeding units, and Baptist recovery units began responding to requests for cleanup and scoured neighborhoods for needs to meet.

“They came through our neighborhood and said, ‘We need some work,'” one homeowner said about the Virginia Baptist recovery unit.

When Michael and Lisa Desmond stepped outside after the sky had stilled, an eerie silence had fallen around them -– the quiet aftermath after destructive force.

And they found their house covered in a 40-foot-tall maple.

“We could have been killed,” Michael said.

With everyone safe, the Desmonds had the mammoth task either of removing a multi-ton tree from their roof or having a professional do it.

“We felt like we were bottom of the barrel because the tree hadn’t actually come into our home,” Michael said. When a contractor finally came back with a price, the Desmonds were in shock.

Tuesday night, the Desmonds were praying again. They had no idea how they’d come up with the money.

On Wednesday, a man named Jeremy Seal showed up at their house with a crew of men wearing yellow shirts. The Washington Parish unit of Louisiana Baptist disaster relief had rolled in with chainsaws, a tractor and about a dozen men. By mid-afternoon the tree was piled up across the street.

“These people are amazing,” said Michael, tears filling his eyes. “I felt kind of helpless and these guys just came here and saved the day.”

In all, about 120 Southern Baptist disaster relief units have set up operations in Gustav-affected areas. Volunteers from 21 state Baptist conventions are meeting needs from 54 established sites.
Adam Miller is associate editor of On Mission magazine. For more information or to donate to Southern Baptist disaster relief efforts, visit www.namb.net or call toll-free 1-866-407-6262.

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  • Adam Miller