MOBILE, Ala. (BP)–Up to his neck in water, trying to keep two elderly women afloat in the putrid waters flooding New Orleans, Pastor Michael Melon cried out to the Lord, “I’m tired! I’m exhausted! I can go no further.”
“I looked to my right and there, tied to a stop sign 10 yards away, was a flat-bottom Jon boat. I thought, ‘The Lord has provided,'” the bivocational pastor of Coliseum Place Baptist Church, recounted.
Melon told his personal story of God’s protection and provision throughout Hurricane Katrina and the aftermath during a visit at the University of Mobile. He and wife Jeanne had stopped by the Baptist-affiliated university, which was helping match them with financial resources so their daughter Hilary could remain in school. Hilary was in the freshman Christian worldview class as her father spoke Sept. 23, tears streaming down his face.
“Seeing him up there, hearing his story, hearing details I hadn’t heard — it was hard,” Hilary said. “What he was able to do down there and the impact he had made me realize that it was a wonderful thing that he stayed. He was in God’s will the whole time.”
Speaking by phone from his oldest daughter’s home in Spartanburg, S.C., on Sept. 27, Melon relayed what he called a story of God’s protection and provision.
“Everybody knew the hurricane was coming, but many were either unwilling or unable to evacuate the city. I chose to stay behind due to the many elderly people in my neighborhood who were unable to evacuate,” said Melon, whose small 150-year-old inner-city church is in the lower Garden District of New Orleans.
Melon sent his wife Jeanne and 15-year-old son Gregory out of town, first to the University of Mobile in Alabama to pick up Hilary, then on to Spartanburg, S.C.
Meanwhile, Melon checked on several elderly neighbors and prepared his home, located just five blocks from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He had earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at NOBTS before serving two years as a missionary to Paraguay, South America, through the International Mission Board then earning a doctorate of ministry from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Boston.
On Sunday, hurricane-force winds lashed at the city. By 8 a.m. Monday, the Melons’ home began to take on water. Within half an hour, one foot of water was in the house and by 10 a.m. it had risen to two feet.
There came a moment when Melon questioned his decision to stay and ride out the storm in his home. He was huddled in the attic, holding tight to the family’s dog, with the wind ripping the shingles off the roof just a few feet over his head. The water had risen to four feet in the one-story house, and the entire house was shaking as if a freight train were coming through it. “I took a Sharpie pen and wrote my name and my wife’s cell phone number on my body in case I turned up a floater,” he said.
The water continued to rise, so Melon stuffed the dog inside his trench coat and abandoned his house in the midst of the storm, heading toward higher ground — the seminary.
“Trees were blowing over, power lines were snapping, water was five to six feet in the street. I walked and swam to the seminary and huddled in front of Leavell Chapel outside to escape the wind,” he said. After about three hours, he felt hypothermia setting in, but by 4 p.m. he found shelter for the night with others on the seminary campus.
Tuesday morning after the storm, Melon swam to his house through streets filled with eight to 10 feet of water.
“The water was filled with gasoline, raw sewage, various chemicals, plus the dead bodies of humans and animals,” Melon said. “I saw bodies floating by and wondered where they would spend eternity and if their loved ones would ever find them.”
His home was filled with about six feet of water. He went to his neighbors’ homes to see who was left behind.
“Across the street was Miss Shirley, a 70-year-old widow who spent the day and the night and the following day in neck-deep water inside her home,” Melon said. He forced the door open and told Miss Shirley he would take her to higher ground. Together they went to the home of Miss Connie, a 79-year-old widow from Honduras.
“Miss Connie had crawled up into her attic,” Melon said. “I called to her but could not enter the home due to the barred windows and debris.” Using an ax he had brought from his house, Melon chopped a hole in Miss Connie’s roof and pulled her out.
With Miss Connie on his back and Miss Shirley hanging onto his shoulder, he pushed, swam and walked the women for four blocks, keeping their heads above water.
“I couldn’t keep these women above water any longer, and the water was up to my neck. They were holding on to me and I was trying to push them and keep them up,” he said. That’s when he cried to the Lord and then saw the empty boat.
He swam to the boat and brought it back to the two elderly women, heaving them into the boat and pushing it to dry ground.
“The problem was, dry ground was no safer than the flood area, due to the looters,” Melon said. “Many had broken into the post office, stolen postal trucks and were crashing them into the storefronts to gain access. Many guns were visible in their hands,” he said, describing it as “a scene out of Somalia with warlords.”
Just two blocks from the seminary was a drug and rehabilitation ministry operated by Melon’s friend Mel Jones. Melon and the women made it to the site, which was dry and relatively safe.
For the next two days, Melon paddled the boat through his neighborhood, rescuing people off their rooftops and chopping through roofs to rescue them from attics.
“The sound of people trapped in their attic and crying for help is a sound that will stay with me for the rest of my life,” he said.
He brought a total of 12 people to safety, while FEMA workers used the ministry site to bring about 60 people to dry ground.
Because of the increasing violence of looters in the area of their impromptu rescue point, Melon and friends decided to abandon the city on Wednesday evening. They pushed a van through chest-high water onto the elevated highway and, with eight people aboard, escaped the city and headed for South Carolina where Melon’s family was waiting.
But God’s providence had not ended.
“We pulled into a truck rest area on [Interstate] 55 in McComb, Miss., at about 2 a.m. Thursday,” Melon said. “I stepped out of the van and this young kid walks up and says, ‘Do you know how to get to South Carolina?'”
That young man was 22-year-old Jamal, whose father drove a school bus for the New Orleans parish. Jamal’s father had handed him the keys to the bus and told him to evacuate the family.
“This young man had never driven a school bus. He had loaded up the family and been driving in circles in Mississippi trying to figure out the way to South Carolina, and when the bus was almost out of gas he pulled into the same rest area where we were,” Melon said.
As a bivocational pastor, Melon had driven trucks and buses for a living. He drove the bus with 30 evacuees — and a dog — to South Carolina.
“One lady on the bus said, ‘You needed us and we needed you. God must surely be working overtime,'” Melon recounted.
The road ahead is filled with uncertainty for Melon. Before the storm, he worked as a retail accounts representative for Coca-Cola, and the job is there if he wants it. But Melon said he can’t see going back to selling carbonated beverages with his city in such need. His home is a complete loss, but his church is still standing. He began a return trip to New Orleans Sept. 27 to try to establish the church as a re-entry site for people returning to the city.
“I was a bivocational pastor. My church can’t pay me. I’m going to be stepping out on faith and go fulltime into ministry. There’s a lot of uncertainty right now — a lot of uncertainty,” he said.
But there is one thing that is certain in Michael Melon’s life.
“God is the only sure anchor that we can hold onto. Psalm 46 says that God is an ever-present help in times of trouble. This flood was indiscriminate in its destruction. It didn’t matter if you were rich or poor, young or old, black, white, brown or yellow. But in the midst of this destruction, God made His provision tangible and His presence known,” Melon said.
Kathy Dean is director of public relations at the University of Mobile.