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Lives battered by Katrina get help, hope

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–About a year after Hurricane Katrina passed over New Orleans, Thyra and Larry Ferguson came back to their home on Mandolin Street, four blocks from the levee that had held back Lake Pontchartrain. Thyra, a New Orleans native, had grown up one block from the levee and remembers when her friends from high school would swim in the London Avenue Canal, one of the places where Pontchartrain breached and poured into the city.

When the Fergusons came home, their house “looked like Batman and The Joker had a fight in there,” Thyra said. The water had turned the beige carpet black. Their deep freezer thawed, emitting the smell of spoiled shrimp and fish. Furniture had simply crumbled. Their collection of baby, family and high school graduation pictures was ruined.

“We couldn’t believe it,” Thyra said.

The list of repairs and replacements lengthened, and of the $50,000 the Fergusons would need to bring life back to normal, they’d received $10,000 in FEMA relief and $3,000 from insurance, far short of covering flood damage.

That’s when Operation NOAH Rebuild stepped in. With the assistance the Fergusons already had received, they bought windows, a few appliances and some wiring. Southern Baptist man-hours and dollars supplied the rest: roof, new cabinets, dry wall, insulation and paint for the exterior.

“NOAH started working on my house in November [last year] and they’re still working on my house,” said Thyra, whose air conditioning was being installed the day she spoke with Baptist Press. “They’re working on my neighbor’s house too.”

The story of Thyra and Larry represents the countless lives in Louisiana and Mississippi thrown off balance by the catastrophe of the 2005 hurricane season.

In Mississippi, where the eye of Katrina landed, 15,000 FEMA trailers still house families along the state’s coastal region. While Mississippi is not receiving aid from NOAH teams, the state has felt the impact of Southern Baptist volunteer involvement.

“We hardly have a day that we don’t have teams down there,” said Jim Futral, executive director of the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board. “But if it had not been for Southern Baptists coming and loving and caring and working and feeding and giving, the disaster would have been 10 times worse than it was. It has been without question the most incredible thing to see the church response. They have come and worked and stayed and they are still there and doing incredible things day after day after for which we are so grateful.”

Stories of the selfless efforts of Southern Baptists and other believers abound in the areas where tragedy seemed to rule two years ago. This year dozens of families will move out of FEMA trailers into their restored homes.

“On each visit I see more evidence of a region coming back to life,” said Jim Burton, senior director of partnership mobilization for the North American Mission Board.

“We are finding that the needs of each homeowner are very different,” Burton recounted. “Some just need us to install a faucet; others have needed us to participate in a complete rebuild of their home. Our goal is to meet as many homeowner needs as possible while staying within budget.”

About 16,000 volunteers in 900 teams — including World Changers, Baptist Builders and church groups — have assisted with Operation NOAH Rebuild in New Orleans, and thanks to the generosity of Southern Baptists, more than $26 million has gone toward Katrina recovery efforts.

Volunteers have helped completely restore homes, churches and lives, and the NOAH office has reported 260 baptisms as a result of volunteers’ efforts.

Housing for volunteers has recently moved from the World Trade Center in New Orleans into Hopeview Baptist Church. The NOAH offices are housed now in Calvary Baptist Church in the Algiers area of the city.

Through it all, Operation NOAH Rebuild has been a shining example of Southern Baptist partnership at its best as NAMB has partnered in national volunteer recruitment and funding to assist the Louisiana Baptist Convention and its churches in providing on-site services and manpower alongside volunteers from churches throughout the U.S. and Canada.

But the work is far from finished.

“We are so thankful for the way Southern Baptists have volunteered down here, but we don’t need to think that it’s all over,” said David Hankins, executive director of the Louisiana Baptist Convention. “I think the mindset has become for some, ‘Oh, I thought everything was OK.’ We are very thankful for all the help but not everything is fixed. Things are not back to normal. As one person here said two years ago, ‘You’ll have to keep your hearts warm toward New Orleans for a long time.'”

Hankins expressed immediate concern about the need for volunteers during the fall and winter, a time when there’s a real threat of operations coming to a standstill for lack of manpower.

NOAH needs volunteer evangelism teams for activities such as door-to-door visitation, prayerwalking, community assessment and block parties as well as volunteers for construction. The projects are being coordinated through the NOAH office in partnership with state evangelism offices and directors of missions for Baptist associations across the country.

“There’s a great open door. More people are willing to talk whereas in the past it was sometimes a little bit difficult to engage people in New Orleans in conversation about Jesus,” said Richard Leach, NAMB’s director of ministry and servant evangelism. Add to that openness the presence of many more volunteers who are sharing the Gospel and you see the magnitude of what God is doing”, Leach said.

“The residents in New Orleans have been helped so much that it’s overwhelming to a lot of people to see that we really do care,” he added.

As for Katrina survivors like the Fergusons, God has used the efforts of Southern Baptists to give them their life back.

“I’ve been a Catholic for 52 years,” Thyra said. “But since Katrina I’ve been going to the Baptist church. I like that they teach the Bible.”

Thyra said she loves the 52 volunteers “God sent to work on my house. Now I want to get in the position where I can go on a mission and help someone else.”
Adam Miller is associate editor of On Mission magazine at the North American Mission Board. For more information about Operation NOAH Rebuild and other recovery efforts along the Gulf Coast region, contact your state evangelism director or the NOAH website, www.namb.net/noah.

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  • Adam Miller