BRAITHWAITE, La. (BP) — Jerry Jones, mass feeding coordinator for Texas Baptist Men, knows how to run a large-scale food operation during disaster responses. But he was taken aback by a request for TBM volunteers to go to Louisiana’s Plaquemines Parish to recover runaway caskets.
Along the Louisiana Gulf Coast — from Braithwaite to New Orleans — it’s common local practice to bury loved ones in above-ground crypts because of the area’s high water table.
But after above-ground tombs in English Turn and Promised Land cemeteries near Braithwaite and another nearby cemetery were inundated by Hurricane Isaac’s flood surge, dozens of caskets — some new, some decades old — simply popped out of the ground. Some flooded-out mausoleums contained as many as four coffins.
“Our initial job was to collect and help load caskets on trucks to be taken to a central processing center where LSU forensic anthropologists and funeral home directors were waiting to ID the displaced remains,” Jones said.
“Up front, we had a meeting to discuss what was expected,” said Jones, 71, a retired supervisor with Eastman-Kodak in Longview, Texas, who’s been involved in Southern Baptist Disaster Relief since 1996. “We gave any guys who wanted to a chance to drop out — with no questions asked. But everyone agreed that the Lord called us to do this ministry and He would give us the strength and courage to do it. And He did.”
Their first task when arriving on the scene — with rain still pouring down over displaced, muddy caskets and human remains — was to erect privacy fences with tarps and install a lighted, air-conditioned tent for the Louisiana State University forensic experts.
“Of course, very few of the remains in the caskets had identification on the bodies, so it was the LSU folks’ job to identify them,” Jones said.
As Christians, Jones and his Texas Baptist Men’s team showed maximum respect to the dead and to the living. After a day or so, family members of the displaced deceased began showing up to locate their loved one’s remains.
“There were a lot of tears and grief, and we tried to console them as best we could,” Jones said. “We had some ex-military personnel who had skills at handling these kinds of situations.”
Gibbie McMillan, the Louisiana convention’s DR director, said the casket retrieval operation will take another month to six weeks, and is now being operated by Louisiana Baptist volunteers who took over from Texas Baptist Men.
“There’s no telling how many caskets are in the woods,” McMillan said, adding that the state of Louisiana may have to do an aerial reconnaissance mission to find them all.
Meanwhile, four weeks following Hurricane Isaac’s landfall on Wednesday, Aug. 29, Southern Baptist Disaster Relief volunteers from a dozen state conventions have posted 7,594 volunteer days; 226,153 meals prepared; 1,082 chainsaw and mud-out jobs completed; 221 roof repairs; 141 children cared for; 8,796 laundry loads and showers for victims and volunteers; 13,512 ministry and chaplaincy contacts; 244 Gospel presentations; and 37 professions of faith.
From its disaster operations center in Alpharetta, Ga., NAMB coordinates Southern Baptist responses to major disasters through a partnership between NAMB and the SBC’s 42 state conventions, most of which have their own state disaster relief programs.
SBDR assets include 82,000 trained volunteers, including chaplains, and some 1,550 mobile units for feeding, chainsaw, mud-out, command, communication, childcare, shower, laundry, water purification, repair/rebuild and power generation. SBDR is one of the three largest mobilizers of trained disaster relief volunteers in the United States, including the American Red Cross and The Salvation Army.
Southern Baptists and others who want to donate to the disaster relief operations can contact their state conventions or contribute to NAMB’s disaster relief fund via namb.net/disaster-relief-donations. Other ways to donate are to call 1-866-407-NAMB (6262) or mail checks to NAMB, P.O. Box 116543, Atlanta, GA 30368-6543. Designate checks for “Disaster Relief.”
Mickey Noah writes for the North American Mission Board. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).