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COVID-19 hampers Michigan Baptist response to historic flooding


MIDLAND, Mich. (BP) — Historic flooding in middle Michigan during the COVID-19 pandemic presents challenges for Baptist State Convention of Michigan (BSCM) disaster relief.

As the BSCM mobilizes flood response teams, feeding units, damage assessors and chaplains, BSCM state disaster relief director Bob Kiger says some volunteers might find the work too risky. Most volunteers are retirees in the age group most vulnerable to the coronavirus.

“That’s liable to affect the amount of people we have, because we don’t have a lot of young volunteers,” Kiger told Baptist Press.

He’s mobilizing aid to an estimated 10,000 people displaced from their homes when the Edenville and Sanford dams were breached after heavy rainfall. Flooding from the Tittabawassee River covered rooftops in Edenville, Midland and Sanford, small towns about 150 miles northwest of Detroit. Residents hadn’t suffered such flooding since heavy rains in 1986, which had been described as a 100-year or 500-year event.

The BSCM is also challenged because many flood evacuees are refusing to enter shelters where disaster relief volunteers can most easily respond to their needs and concerns. Instead, some are sleeping near shelters in their cars.

“There are some shelters that are open, but people are hesitant to go into the shelters because of COVID-19, which is extremely bad up here,” Kiger said. “A lot of people stayed in their cars outside the shelter. … We don’t want somebody sitting outside of the shelter and starve to death because they’re afraid to go inside.

“What the church is going to be able to do is make sure these people have food,” Kiger said, “and possibly guarantee them that they will at least be socially distanced from everybody else” inside shelters.

The death toll from the coronavirus has surpassed 5,000 in Michigan, according to Johns Hopkins University data.

Steve Saxton, a 65-year-old disaster relief volunteer at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Midland, was forced out of his home as the dams failed.

Saxton said he is thankful the Tittabawassee River crested at about three feet below the forecast 38 feet, which kept flood waters about nine feet at his home. While his basement was flooded completely, the first floor of his home sustained about six inches of water.

“When the two dams failed, they predicted a crest of 38 feet, which is five feet higher than we had in 1986,” Saxton said. “Yesterday afternoon, it crested at 35.08 feet, and it crested three hours early. … If it had come up another three feet, that would have done another two and a half feet through my house, on the main living structure floor.”

Saxton and his wife Joyce, both trained disaster relief volunteers, are sheltered at Emmanuel Baptist with about 30 residents and counselors who had to evacuate The Open Door of Midland rescue mission. The church has a dormitory-style area designed to house disaster relief volunteers and others, but Saxton is thankful he and Joyce grabbed two cots from their home basement as they fled the flood.

“We’re in the same storm, but we’re all in different boats,” Saxton said. “But God’s totally in charge of all the boats. Some people might be closer to shore and not be as troubled. Some may be out in the deep water with the bigger waves.”

Emmanuel is one of 11 churches in the Bay Area Baptist Association, which serves 11 counties. Associational Missionary David Roberts said none of the church buildings was flooded, but many members’ homes were damaged.

“Members in those churches have definitely been affected,” Roberts said. “We’re small in number, but we’re large in territory.”

No deaths had been reported, but mud-out work is stalled until the flood waters recede.

Kiger is coordinating Michigan Southern Baptists’ response with state police, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other volunteer groups. Alabama and Missouri Southern Baptist disaster relief units have already volunteered to help, Kiger said, and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has offered protective gear for volunteers.

Kiger appreciates prayer.

“You never think it’s going to happen to you, I guess, especially these people in Midland,” he said. “Because they had in ’86 the once in a 500-year flood, and we went up and cleaned out homes in 2017 because they had a flood then. … And here it is again.”