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As the Mississippi floods, volunteers adapt

KROTZ SPRINGS, La. (BP)–James Irvine Jr. was among the first disaster relief volunteers called out in Louisiana to respond to the Mississippi River’s flooding.

Irvine, a member of Pine Ridge Baptist Church in Melder, took a shower/laundry unit to Krotz Springs, La., to support 160 National Guard personnel stationed there to keep watch on the levees for any weaknesses that could result in a breach.

Irvine, who is trained in a variety of disaster relief situations, sleeps on the floor in the Krotz Springs community center with the National Guardsmen.

“I’m very adaptable,” Irvine said May 21 at the two-week point in Krotz Springs. “They wash their own clothes. I just kind of keep watch.” Describing the laundry/shower unit’s efficiency, Irvine noted, “I can run the whole unit on two 110-volt plugs — house current. That’s the air conditioner, washer, dryer and the water heater.”

Irvine, also trained as a disaster relief chaplain, reported, “I’ve had some good experiences and results so far.”

One guardsman realized he needed to go back to church, Irvine said, and a couple of men have even gone to church with him. Several have picked up DR-themed Bibles and have asked questions, and Irvine saw one guardsman walk around a corner and fall to his knees with his hands raised in prayer.

Irvine models what Southern Baptist Convention Disaster Relief volunteers do: They adapt to the situation, help as they can and are ready with a Gospel witness as the Holy Spirit provides opportunities.

Dawn Lamper, a member at First Baptist Church of Moss Bluff and a student at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, was part of a team of DR chaplains who went to Tuscaloosa, Ala., for a week of ministry.

“We drove the countryside and visited with people,” Lamper said. “We tried to go to hard-hit areas.”

They also tried to be sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s leading. After passing a couple sitting on the porch of an undamaged home, one team member said she wanted to go back and talk with them.

During the conversation with the couple, the team said they were there to help people. The husband said he liked that. When the team asked how they could pray for them, the man said he was going to have surgery in the morning. Before the team left the porch, the man had trusted Christ for salvation. Upon a return visit, his wife said she had prayed for him for years, to no avail.

“Without disaster relief, he would have seen us as more people just telling him how to live,” Lamper said. “He was open to us because we were there to help.”

Help is what is needed in Louisiana as people deal with what has been called a 500-year flood of the Mississippi River.

Southern Baptist Disaster Relief has been on top of the situation from the beginning, said Gibbie McMillan, the Louisiana Baptist Convention’s disaster relief and men’s ministry director.

Several of the state’s 74 DR units already have deployed and others are ready to be called with four hours’ notice.

“We are supporting the National Guard with a laundry and shower trailer in Krotz Springs as well as New Roads, St. Martinville and Butte LaRose,” McMillan said. “Five shelters have been proposed by the Red Cross. We’re waiting to see whether or not they’re needed.

“I think we’re as best prepared as we’ve ever been,” McMillan said. “I’ve seen more concern and community involvement than ever before. The Red Cross, Salvation Army, Southern Baptist Disaster Relief and local municipalities and the governor’s office, we’re all working together.”

It costs the state government $900 a day to lease a shower trailer, McMillan said. Southern Baptist Disaster Relief provides them for just the cost of supplies — propane, soap, electricity — plus a watchman who doubles as a chaplain.

“Some people say there’s a separation of church and state,” McMillan said. “The Bible says there’s no separation between God and government. When the government needs help, some of them still call on God.”

McMillan said he has received a telephone call at least once a day “since all this started” from someone at the SBC’s North American Mission Board. “They ask how I’m doing, how we’re doing in the state, and before they hang up they say, ‘I’d like to have a word of prayer with you,'” McMillan said. “When trouble comes, we have a big family.”

Trouble started its way to Louisiana when three major storm systems in April combined with heavier than usual snowmelt from the Upper Midwest. Water gushing down the Ohio River into the Mississippi River led to flooding along the world’s third-largest watershed.

The milk-chocolate-colored Mississippi was at 57.1 feet when it crested Saturday, May 21, at Vidalia, La. — higher than it had ever been there.

So much water has been gushing down the “Big Muddy” that tributaries began backing up, flooding farmland in several states. In Louisiana, earthen levees built after devastating 1927 floods have been holding, government officials say.

The Bonnet Carre spillway was opened May 9, diverting floodwaters across about seven miles of barren land and into Lake Pontchartrain. The Morganza Spillway north of Baton Rouge was opened May 14 — for the first time since 1973. It saved populated areas, but hundreds of people who had built homes and camps in the Atchafalaya Basin began packing up and moving out for an undetermined period of time, since the waters will take some time to recede.

A day of training for disaster relief was held May 21 at East Bayou Baptist Church in Lafayette. About 40 people participated, bringing the number of trained DR volunteers in the state to 4,067. This includes people trained in food service, chain saw, mud-out, shower/laundry, childcare and chaplaincy outreach.

“It’s going to be four to six weeks after the crests before people will begin to inhabit the area again,” McMillan said. “That’s when our mud-out teams will be in full swing, plus support units for them. We probably also will be asking for mud-out teams from other states to help.”

In mud-out work, the depth of the water, how long it stays and the material used in a home’s construction are all variables, McMillan said. The first thing to be done is to shovel out the silt left by the floodwaters.

“We need to get the mud out when it’s still wet,” he said. “If it hardens, it will be too hard to work with.”

Once the silt and everything in the house destroyed by the floodwaters is removed, the wall paneling or dry wall needs to be torn out to about a foot above the water line. What’s left is treated with chemicals to kill mold. After that dries, rebuilding can begin.

“The water is still rising,” McMillan said May 21. “The Mississippi in Baton Rouge is very high, higher than I ever remember seeing it before.”

Down at Bayou Baptist Association where the Mississippi will empty into the Gulf, flooding was anticipated at Gibson Baptist Church but it now appears the church will be spared, director of missions Joe Arnold said. “We moved the pastor out — everything but his TV, recliner and a mattress — and he’s still there,” he added, referring to John Williams.

“West Terrebone Parish was supposed to have 1,600 structures under water,” Arnold continued. “We figure if it’s a dry run, hurricane season is right around the corner…. Frustration is the biggest thing people are dealing with. ‘I wish it would get here,’ people are saying. Anticipating something that may or may not happen — that’s hard on folks.”
Karen L. Willoughby is managing editor of the Baptist Message (www.baptistmessage.com), newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention.