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Rio Grande flooding: Vols aid survivors

RIO BRAVO, Texas (BP)–The young mother gave birth to a baby girl as a tropical storm overflowed the Rio Grande River, engulfing her home in its currents. The family, left without house, food, water or even shoes, now has a new life to take care of and an old life to rebuild.

The Rio Grande’s receding waters left behind inches of mud, coating everything in sight. Without shoes to protect the children’s feet from the bacteria-ridden mud and broken glass, they became susceptible to cuts, scrapes and infections.

When law enforcement officers dropped by to assess the new mother’s needs, they found her washing her children’s bloodied and dirty feet with the little bit of clean water she had left. The well-being of her family surpassed any need of her own, even after having just given birth.

Southern Baptists of Texas Convention disaster relief volunteers were deployed to Rio Bravo, Texas, just over a week after the July 8 storm hit the area, assessing the needs of local residents before deploying a mud-out unit that served 54 families. According to the Webb County Sherriff’s Department, around 70 houses received some sort of water damage, many of them completely submerged by the swollen Rio Grande. The storm’s damage will be felt for months to come.

With a population of 5,657, Rio Bravo is situated between Laredo, where a quarter of a million people live, and the border of Mexico. Since the majority of the residents live below the poverty level, the community is feeling the weight of their loss far more than some other towns affected by flooding, according to a local deputy. The already-rising crime rate has skyrocketed as the houses left vulnerable by the flooding are burglarized.

“Of the families we helped, we didn’t run across anyone who had insurance,” reported Jerry Bishop of Lufkin, Texas, who assumed leadership as the disaster relief team’s “white cap” during their final week of work. “They are living day to day.”

Identity theft, burglaries, drug trafficking and illegal border crossings are among the problems law enforcement officials face, causing the Border Patrol to be on full alert. In many cases, they have yet to fully assess the damages because of the overwhelming needs of the people and the lack of resources to help them.

Nena Segeba, a local resident who lived on the bank of Rio Grande, still is searching for a reason to be hopeful as she continues to care for her 9-month-old child. Her mobile home, situated less than 200 feet from the river, was one of the first engulfed by its floodwaters.

Raging floodwaters and an increase in crime are not the only problems Rio Bravo faces in the aftermath of the storm. Once the thick mud dries and turns to dust, the harmful particles will pollute the air with bacteria and cause breathing difficulties for residents, Webb County Sherriff’s Deputy Cesar Estrado explained. Fleas, ticks and mosquitoes thrive in the dense summer heat and standing water, posing an additional problem for children who play outside, Estrado said.

In some cases, residents have been able to seek refuge with relatives in the area until their homes are rebuilt. In other cases, Estrada said, “A lot of illegal people lost everything, so they are moving back to Mexico.”

Southern Baptist Disaster Relief volunteers, some having deployed a few weeks earlier to Eagle Pass and Laredo following Hurricane Alex, began assessing the damage to Rio Bravo once the water had receded enough for access. Mud-out and shower teams from SBTC were in place July 16, assisted by a laundry unit and volunteers from the Louisiana Baptist Convention and mud-out volunteers from the Baptist Convention of New Mexico.

Bishop and his wife Geraldine trained a cooking unit in Del Rio on July 12 that took the equipment 100 miles into Mexico to serve displaced residents, connecting with an ongoing ministry of missionary Lynn Pierce of Friendly Baptist Church in Tyler. By the next day, the Bishops were joining mud-out teams stationed out of Laredo, where they remained for two weeks.

SBTC disaster relief director Jim Richardson accounted for a total of 440 volunteer days in all of the deployments along to the Rio Grande, as more than 62 homes were cleaned of debris and shower and laundry facilities offered as needed.

“We have seen over 167 people trust Jesus,” Richardson said.

Disaster relief volunteers from the three states joined Baptist Global Response, an international relief and development organization, to coordinate ministry on both sides of the border earlier in July, serving in mud-out, showers, laundry, assessments, operations and chaplaincy. Eagle Pass volunteers from New Mexico assisted the Del Rio/Uvalde team at 12 ministry sites to complete that mud-out operation.

The work conducted in Mexico involved 40 Anglos from the U.S. and 310 Mexicans, Richardson said. More than 350 volunteers from Texas and Mexico cleaned up 16 ministry sites of mud and debris, provided meals for 14,332 people and saw 133 people come to trust Jesus as their Lord, he added.

Southern Baptist Disaster Relief is a partnership ministry of the state Baptist conventions and Southern Baptists’ North American Mission Board, funded by Cooperative Program dollars contributed by local churches. Through July, SBDR activity across the United States for 2010 — including the response to the Haiti earthquake — has included the preparation of over 143,000 meals, 18,400 volunteer days, 45,000 ministry contacts, 11,500 gospel presentations and 1,442 professions of faith.

“What they are doing is a great job,” said Omega Delgado, a secretary at Rio Bravo’s city hall. “The SBTC is helping with everything the people lost.”

As each day passes, Mayor Nora Rivera pleads for patience from the community as they try to meet urgent needs. Her own home damaged by the flood, Rivera understands the heartache caused by the disaster. People are in need of new beds, appliances and clothing, and the mayor is striving to unite the various churches and relief groups as they help the town recover.

Having worked with Southern Baptist volunteers deployed to the area, SBTC church planting missionary Chuy Avila is praying the tragedy will open doors for ongoing ministry in the region. “Laredo is a place where the Gospel is not growing,” he said. “I’m always looking for a way to tell someone about Jesus.”

Ministry amidst disaster is sowing those seeds. SBTC volunteer Wayne Barber of Hillcrest Baptist Church in Jasper manned the shower unit alongside his wife Ann. “I went out with one of the chaplains and he witnessed to a lady and she accepted Christ,” he recounted. In the process of their work at 22 ministry sites, 44 people professed faith in Christ during that deployment.

“It’s really exciting to hear stories of people being saved. That’s what it’s all about,” Bishop added.

Disaster relief volunteers like the Barbers and Bishops headed home July 24, but knew their rest would be short-lived. The Bishops had a week off before going to Rio Grande City and Roma, where the water finally receded to allow mud-out units in, with support for feeding, operations and assessments.

“We will go back home and wait on the next call,” Barber said.

“When you look into those peoples’ eyes and see that they don’t know Jesus, that’s what we’re there for,” Bishop said. “You get tired, but you don’t know you’re tired when you sit down and sleep six hours and go again. You get to where it grows on you. You have to go help these folks as much as you can.”

With Avila launching a church planting strategy in nearby Laredo, Bishop knows there will be harvest to come from the relationships developed in the midst of difficult circumstances. “Chuy is a good asset for SBTC,” Bishop said. “He’ll keep visiting with those folks and will be able to help them on account of this ministry.”
Cari Phillips writes for the Southern Baptist TEXAN. With additional reporting by news editor Tammi Reed Ledbetter.

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