COVINGTON, La. (BP) — Trained disaster relief volunteers from several states swarmed to southeast Louisiana within 48 hours of Hurricane Isaac, some reaching the area as soon as a day behind the storm as it inched its way up from the Gulf Coast.
Rolling Hills Ministries of Ruston, La., and other congregations rushed to help people in need, arriving at First Baptist Church of Covington, La., one of several initial feeding sites. Others set up at Northshore Church, Slidell; Zoar Baptist Church, Baton Rouge; Calvary Baptist Church, New Orleans; Coteau Baptist Church, Houma, and the Alario Center, Westwego.
Longtime DR volunteer Joe Henard of Amarillo, Texas, coordinating logistics from the North American Mission Board’s new Incident Command Center, described volunteers as “short-term missionaries spreading the Gospel as we serve God by serving people. We’ve got to keep the first things first.”
To many of the recipients, the volunteers’ especially quick response seemed more important than the help itself, valuable as it was to get food, water and ice, and have trees removed from houses, gray plastic sheeting placed on roofs and yards raked clean of debris.
“We haven’t had any power since Tuesday,” said Yvonne Middlecamp, “and me and my kids was dying from this heat, and then I heard you was here.” She and two teens clambered out of their SUV for water, ice and something to eat at First Covington.
Middlecamp’s frustration was compounded because her neighbors across the street had gotten their electricity restored two days previously, as she remained without power, feeling forgotten.
The storm victims expressed gratitude.
“When I see all the people come to help … I’m hopeful,” said Stephanie Custer. She sat on a desk chair on her carport, surrounded by precious belongings that had been carried out of her house by her coworkers. She carefully looked through the items, discarding only a few. Clothes pins held several pieces of paper hung up to dry on a hastily-strung line. Her grandfather’s long-rusted banjo stood in a side chair.
“She’s picking right now; she’s not ready” to get rid of sodden remnants of her life, said Jay Johnston, who had organized a group from First Covington to help this family in hard-hit St. Tammany Parish.
The woman wasn’t ready for First Covington to haul any more of her family’s possessions out of the house, but said she’d be grateful if the church would clean up stench-soaked bayou debris from her lawn that, like most in the area, was infested with fire ants. Within an hour, a dozen industrial-strength black trash bags (and countless bites) attested to the volunteers’ servant hearts.
“We do what we can,” said Shay Powell, who with her husband Bud, also onsite, teaches fifth grade girls at First Covington. “Next time, it could be us needing help.”
DR units from Louisiana, Texas Baptist Men, Southern Baptists of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Alabama, Missouri, and Kentucky, with additional support from the North American Mission Board’s DR fleet, had mounted a smooth response to Isaac, said Terry Henderson, “white cap” incident commander and DR director for Texas Baptist Men.
“Operationally it’s working a little better because we have experience from Katrina,” Henderson said, referring to knowledge of local geography as much as relationships built with other responders.
“We were way ahead of where we were with [Southern Baptist DR response after] Katrina,” Henderson said. “The acceptance is a lot quicker now.”
Jay Atkins, pastor of First Baptist Church of Westwego, agreed.
“Georgia Disaster Relief prepared 450,000 meals after Katrina at the Alario Center,” Atkins said. “This time they also gave us sleeping space at Alario. It’s a growing partnership.”
With the Oklahoma team housed at Alario, First Westwego can open its building to about 70 volunteers for post-Isaac ministry, the pastor said. Though he and his family were still without power on Sunday (Sept. 2), his focus was on helping Westwego and pastors in the nearby fishing village of Barataria, which had flooding five feet deep in some homes, and in St. Bernard, where Poydras Baptist Church sits within a couple of miles of devastated Braithwaite.
At Poydras Baptist, water, snacks and children’s toys from the Virginia nonprofit, Gleaning for the World, were passed out. About 50 people met Sunday (Sept. 2) in the foyer of the church, which still had no power Sunday, with doors open to catch what breeze might cling to the sweltering humidity.
An 18-wheeler stuffed with supplies was sent to First Baptist Church of New Orleans, as a result of a relationship established during Katrina recovery. First New Orleans shared supplies with the New Orleans Baptist Association, which passed it on to Poydras, First Baptist Church of Norco, and First Baptist Church LaPlace and the LaPlace campus of Celebration Church.
“We had to offload the 18-wheeler by hand,” said Jack Hunter, NOBA’s executive director and an attorney by profession, who was drenched in sweat from the rushed exertion on an extremely humid day. He and the association’s DR liaison, Billy Puckett, worked together.
They handed down boxes and water jugs from the association’s flatbed delivery truck to Poydras members, which included a fifth-grade girl and 6-year-old boy as well as men and women, each of whom took as much as they could carry.
“Helping people like this provides us with some of the best opportunities to fulfill two commands of Christ: to meet people at their point of need, and to share the gospel,” Hunter said.
Church members would be taking the items to people needing help in the community, said John Galey, pastor at Poydras for the last 12 years.
Disaster Relief after Isaac in Louisiana started with feeding units, but with the restoration of power and the opening of stores and restaurants, that need is receding.
The need for chainsaw, mudout and childcare units, however, and for chaplains, increases as the water from Isaac’s triple punch –- up to 20 inches of rain, up to 12 feet of storm surge, and rising levels of bayous, lakes and rivers — recedes and more people return home to survey the damage.
A chainsaw unit from Cedar Crest Baptist Church in West Monroe, La., responded from Coteau Houma to a need in Chauvin. Isaac had completely torn a tree at least 18 inches in diameter from its below-ground roots in the front yard, and had twisted a similarly-sized tree in the backyard to the ground.
Homeowner Joseph Catslano had lived in that house –- through several hurricanes and floods -– for at least 20 years.
“Where else would I go?” Catslano asked. “Anywhere on the coast, you’re going to have hurricanes.”
When asked what he would have done with his downed trees if not for the DR chainsaw unit, the homeowner said in a Cajun twang, “They would probably be laying here for a long time.” He leaned against Cedar Crest’s bush-hogging tractor as he talked with one of the team repairing the chain on a 24-inch saw.
It’s during quiet moments like these that witnessing takes place, said Joe Arnold, “white cap” for the Houma site and the local director of missions.
“I don’t have half the chaplains I need,” Arnold said. “We’re seeing very little resistance from the people here, and it’s a 90 percent Catholic area.”
In addition to NAMB’s new Incident Command Center, which coordinates between all the on-site units as well as its partners – FEMA, American Red Cross and others –- two NAMB 18-wheelers arrived in the Issac recovery area packed with pallets of gray plastic sheeting that replaces the blue tarps seen after Katrina. The trucks offloaded the roofing supplies at several locations, and when that was done, refilled the trailers with pallets of 16-oz. water bottles that they took to designated DR points of distribution.
“This Incident Command Center has made it easier to coordinate,” ICC Coordinator Terry Henderson said. “We’re working with 50 Disaster Relief units from eight states. That equals to about 300 volunteers.
“The 18-wheelers made it possible to get large amounts of water and other supplies to the various sites without wasted time,” Henderson continued. “We didn’t have to go rent a truck or buy one. All this makes the coordination go better, which means we have greater availability to help more people more quickly -– when they’re feeling the need for it. And when we meet that need, they’re more open to hearing how Jesus can meet their spiritual need.”
Karen Willoughby is managing editor of the Baptist Message newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).