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After Ike, flooded churches in Louisiana ponder their future

ALEXANDRIA, La. (BP)–Churches in southern Louisiana that weathered Hurricanes Katrina and/or Rita and three years later Gustav may have been done in by Ike’s onslaught Sept. 13.

Joe Arnold, director of missions in Bayou Baptist Association southwest of New Orleans, said 5,000 more homes in the region were flooded by Ike than Rita in 2005. This means 15,000 homes rather than 10,000 homes.

“Longtime pastors tell me they’ve never seen the water this high,” Arnold said. “I’ve got 11 churches that were strongly impacted. ‘No church; no offering; no salary.’ That’s an abbreviated version of my report.”

Live Oak Baptist Church in Montegut had three feet of water in the church when pastor Tommy Bellon evacuated. The parsonage next door had similar damage. They’ve not been able to return to see how high the water actually got, Arnold said.

Bethel Baptist Church in Bourg has two feet of water in the church and roof damage.

First Baptist Church in Houma was in the final stages of volunteer construction on its new day school. It was an eight-building compound with a central courtyard.

“We only have one standing now, and we may have to tear it down,” pastor’s wife Jan Folmar said. “We may just be at square one.”

Arnold spent Tuesday morning in a conference with other associational leaders to assess the damage inflicted by Gustav and now Ike.

“One of the problems we’re going to see is a shortfall -– my conservative estimate -– of $100,000 in offerings over this six-week/two-month period,” Arnold said. “Some of these people don’t have jobs, so no money to give. Grand Caillou Baptist Church in Houma has already missed four Sundays because of the first storm. We’re going to see what happens.

“Some of them feel like, ‘I don’t know if I can go through this again.’ They still know their strength comes from the Lord, but it’s part of the grief process: ‘Here we go again, three years later. We just got to where we could see the light at the end of the tunnel, and now this.'”

Arnold would like partnerships to develop between churches in Bayou Baptist Association and churches elsewhere.

“I have three churches that were limping already,” Arnold said. “If they don’t get partnerships in bodies and finances, they’re not going to open again. When you’re limping and fall into the water, it’s hard to get up again.”

Assessments are still being taken of Ike damage, reported John Yeats, director of communications for the Louisiana Baptist Convention.

“It’s going to be 48 hours before we have a level of accuracy relating to the level of damage to our churches,” Yeats said. “We are getting preliminary reports as to church buildings, parsonages and members’ homes. There is extensive damage.”

“When the directors of missions have [volunteer] requests, they come to us,” said Gibbie McMillan, director of disaster relief for the Louisiana convention. “They identify the needs. A key issue is that you don’t want to get more people in the affected area than you can care for.”

Volunteers, unless they’re self-sufficient, need housing, food and showers, McMillan said. At this point, he noted, “There are many people who want to come, but we must have an organized plan to provide for them.”

J.P. Miles, director of missions for the Carey Baptist Association, which includes Calcasieu, Jeff Davis and Cameron parishes — from Lake Charles to points west and south -– noted that the region received the full impact of Ike’s powerful storm surge.

“In many areas it’s kind of déjà vu as to what has taken place,” Miles said. “At Johnson Bayou, the parsonage is gone, education space is gone; we assume at Johnson Bayou nothing is left. From what we’ve been able to tell, First [Baptist] Cameron and Oak Grove took primarily water damage; we’re trying to get someone in there Wednesday or Thursday. Hackberry is the fourth church in the association with major damage. Structurally it’s fine but we need to gut it completely and go back to the studs -– hopefully they’re OK, then dry it out, re-Sheetrock it and put in new flooring and ceiling.

“We’re looking at a new phase of ministry, especially on the Coast,” Miles continued. “In assessing this thing after Rita, we tried to get people to take a broader view. That’s what we’re going to do again. Our recommendation is going to be initially at Johnson Bayou that they have a house church -– get the folks together but don’t worry about a building. Probably the same situation at First Cameron and at Oak Grove, which both had about 20 people meeting before this storm. Hackberry was about 60-70.”

Reports from other churches in the Carey Baptist Association indicate superficial damage -– shingles off; signs blown down.

“What I’m hearing is, ‘We’re fine; how can we help other churches?'” Miles said.

David Hankins, executive director of the Louisiana Baptist Convention, is to meet Wednesday with leaders from the North American Mission Board, Miles said. “I think the money is going to be far more limited than last time,” Miles said. “We can ill afford in any situation to extend hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars in a precarious situation. My hope for my Coast is that we can look at it as a new direction: How can we do ministry effectively but not necessarily with buildings? Getting our people together is important, but do we need to do that in the context of a building?

“Our mindset as Southern Baptists is that we need a brick building on a corner, and it’s hard to get past that,” Miles continued. “You’ve got to wonder how many times to put up that same structure in when there’s the possibility it’s going to go down again. You don’t need a hurricane; you just need a strong wall of water, and you could get that from a tropical storm. A wall of water 20 feet high –- there’s not a lot that will stand up against that.”

An additional problem in the wake of Ike: some buildings were even more badly damaged than they were during Rita, Miles said. After Rita, church reconstruction was grandfathered in under previous zoning requirements, if half the building was left.

“Now everything has to be up to code, and entirely different codes, which might mean 18-foot stilts in some cases,” Miles said.

One significant issue is that churches are having to come up with a 5 percent insurance deductible, or $5,000 for every $100,000 valuation of the property, said Lonnie Wascom, director of missions in Chappapeela, LaTangi and St. Tammany Baptist Associations.

Such deductibles are “a major hit for our churches,” said Wascom, whose associations encompass Slidell and other areas hard-hit by 2005’s Katrina.

This time, two churches have received significant damage from Ike’s storm surge, he said.

“The two churches that are inaccessible are First [Baptist] Madisonville and Manchac Baptist,” Wascom said. “I talked with the pastor of First Madisonville 10 minutes ago. He has a couple of volunteer teams coming in and repeating the rebuilding process of post-Katrina.

“Manchac, I was able to get close to, today. The water had receded from the road, but was still up and over the steps and into the church. They had beautiful hardwood floors that now have sat in water for five days.

“We had a number that were hit with what I consider minor damage,” Wascom continued. “But it’s like ‘minor surgery’ when it’s the other guy and ‘major’ when it’s you, and that’s true with churches, especially smaller churches.”
Karen Willoughby is managing editor of the Baptist Message, newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention.