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Baptists help feed a Gustav-battered Louisiana city

HOUMA, La. (BP)–The small side roads running from Baton Rouge to Houma began to tell the story of Hurricane Gustav as power line poles bowed toward the pavement like loose fingers.

Houma is one of the towns hardest hit by the Category 3 hurricane that churned along the western Louisiana coast unabated by much-diminished marshland that once slowed the onslaught of devastating winds and storm surge.

As the sun began to burn a long orange descent and Houma came closer, the sharper, thicker stars in the sky reminded one of a world without electricity.

“No city lights,” one volunteer said later. “You can see the stars better.”

No electricity, no hotels. And the tap water was unsafe to drink, said Bob Roberts, a leader of the Arkansas Southern Baptist disaster relief feeding, shower and communications units stationed at Christ Baptist Church in Houma. “Use our water. Our water filters can take the most polluted water and make it drinkable,” he said. The filters are what international missionaries use in Third World countries. The closer to the impact zone of a hurricane, the closer these primitive conditions things become.

Near the heart of Houma, local police set up a roadblock to enforce an 8 o’clock curfew. Blue lights flashed distantly throughout the evening, a welcome though ominous show of life in a city that had only three days before been beaten around by the largest show of strength in the Gulf since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“The doves would try to fly this way and the wind would push them back,” said Werlien Prosperie, owner of the Jolly Inn, a Cajun dance hall in Houma. “I stood at my window. That sign came down, then the power lines.”

“But the really amazing thing,” his daughter interjected, “was how the [cooling] coils from the power company went flying. Then the roof came off of that.”

“So what’d you do?” a reporter asked.

“Wait. Nothing to do but wait.”

Prosperie had housed five families in his establishment and they all watched from windows of the 60-year-old structure as Gustav wreaked havoc along Tunnel Boulevard.

“Katie Couric was down here a couple of days ago. CNN and USA Today came too,” he said. “They asked me why I stayed. ‘That’s how Cajuns are,’ I told them. I was concerned for family and the people around here, but I’m too stupid to be scared. We’ve been through stuff like this before. It comes then it passes and you move on and get ready for the next one. We had a business to care for and, besides, it just costs too much to evacuate and takes too long to get back home.

“I’ve not seen that much wind since Betsy,” Prosperie added, recounting his experience with the 1965 Hurricane he witnessed from an oil rig out in the Gulf. “[With Gustav] we had winds 110 to 120 mph. Gusts of 130. Tin and sheet metal flying around. That night [the wind] lifted this porch up three or four inches and set it back down.”

By Thursday, Sept. 4, North Carolina Baptist disaster relief units had rolled in with six 18-wheelers filled with meal supplies. By Friday they were in position to cook 30,000 meals a day for delivery to residents by the Salvation Army’s fleet of disaster response trucks.

Earlier in the week Arkansas Baptist disaster relief had set up at Christ Baptist Church to provide meals and showers to National Guardsmen, law enforcement officers, other emergency workers and fellow Baptist relief units, including a 3 a.m.-arriving North Carolina feeding unit and a Tennessee unit.

“We have those Cambros ready to feed the National Guard,” said Roberts, pointing to large red insulating containers that had been filled with grilled chicken, pinto beans and canned peach wedges.

By 8 a.m. Friday, residents started mile-long car lines leading into the local civic center where National Guard troops distributed meals ready to eat (MREs) and bags of ice. North Carolina feeding unit volunteers were putting final touches on their cooking area, gathering supplies, putting a line of command into place and by 10 a.m. were filling yellow Cambros with breaded chicken and green beans for delivery by the Salvation Army.

About 67 Southern Baptist disaster relief (SBDR) units from 16 state conventions are serving in Louisiana. Many of those units will have to be moved in order to seek protection from Hurricane Ike’s fury as it looms over the Gulf.

Southern Baptist disaster relief leaders at the North American Mission Board’s Atlanta-area offices are working quickly to ready a relief response once Hurricane Ike makes landfall at week’s end.

“People ask, ‘Why do you need these guys?'” said a Houma reporter and photographer named Kilm Liretta, pointing toward North Carolina’s feeding operation. “You know what I tell them? Without these guys, we’d be lost.”

“I grew up half-Catholic and half-Baptist,” added Liretta. “It’s made a pretty good impact on me.”

In Florida, where the state Baptist convention has a partnership with Haitian and Cuban Baptists, disaster relief director Fritz Wilson noted, “Cuba and Haiti again seem to be taking the brunt of everything this year,” after Hurricane Ike continued the string of hurricanes that have struck the Caribbean nations.

Craig Culbreth, Florida Baptists’ director of partnership ministries, will return to Haiti Sept. 10 where many have died as a result of massive flooding, and most of the gardens have washed away.

“The country has been cut off from north to south because of several bridges that have washed out,” said Culbreth, who returned from Haiti Sept. 4. “Their major need is food.”
Adam Miller is associate editor of On Mission magazine published by the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board. With reporting by Joni B. Hannigan, managing editor of the Florida Baptist Witness. To make a donation to Southern Baptist disaster relief ministries, call toll-free 866-407-6262 or visit www.namb.net.

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  • Adam Miller