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Venturing into downtown N.O., Texas volunteers are in the convoy

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–The efforts of Southern Baptists of Texas Convention disaster relief crews could expand significantly as cooperative efforts with the Salvation Army move into New Orleans. Crews made the first of many ventures downtown Sept. 4, distributing sandwiches and water to government and military personnel working in the French Quarter and civilians stranded there.

Bill Davenport, SBTC’s state director of disaster relief, said the usually thriving and bustling French Quarter was “very eerie” as the convoy of four Salvation Army canteen vans pulled into the deserted and boarded up neighborhood. Dirt, mud and debris littered the ground and the stench of rotting food from abandoned restaurants joined with trash left by receding floodwaters filled the air.

Vans parked outside the Sheraton Hotel as crews prepared to serve the National Guardsmen, police and other emergency responders, Homeland Security personnel and any remaining residents who needed food and water.

Davenport and five others from Harmony Hill Baptist Church in Lufkin, Texas, made their way through the streets of the French Quarter like an odd parade -– wearing their bright yellow SBC Disaster Relief T-shirts, pushing a bellhop’s cart loaded with ice chests filled with bottled water and boxes of sandwiches. National Guardsmen, unable to leave their posts to get to the canteen, were thankful for the simple meal of a bologna sandwich and water. One Guardsman said the sandwich was the first non-MRE he had eaten in five days.

As the “white cap” leader assigned by the North American Mission Board to that area, Davenport said there was a smattering of residents who had not abandoned their French Quarter homes. He told of one resident who initially ran from the strange band of volunteers but was eventually convinced they were friendly strangers. Another couple they fed refused to leave their home because they did not want abandon their pet snakes. They offered food and water to a woman whom Davenport suspected had already been living on the street before the storm, as she was not fully aware of what was going on around her.

That feeding process could expand exponentially by mid-week if plans between SBTC and The Salvation Army (TSA) are finalized. TSA’s 53-foot mobile kitchen unit from which SBTC volunteers prepare meals is stationed in Baton Route. Davenport is hopeful TSA can bring in another large rig and set both units in downtown New Orleans. Four or five churches creating “bologna brigades” -– an assembly line of volunteers making thousands of sandwiches for distribution -– could link up with the kitchens to serve as many as 200,000 meals a day, Davenport said.

Plans also include creating “spokes” formed off the hub of mobile kitchens. Davenport said TSA has 20 canteens in the area with five more on the way. Those units would be stationed at strategic points out from the hub, surrounding the city. The canteens would remain in place and food brought to them for distribution in order to save money on gas.

The Salvation Army and Red Cross have the money and equipment to help those in disaster areas while Southern Baptists provide the manpower, Davenport said. A TSA official told him the organization often uses whoever shows up to help and has been properly trained, but they would “love to have a faith-based organization serving meals.”

If the kitchens are established, the volunteer force will need to double so that 100 to 120 people can be rotated into Baton Rouge. All volunteers must be trained disaster relief workers. The SBTC website, www.sbtexas.com/katrina, is regularly updated with training opportunities and news of the expanding ministry.

Davenport said any volunteer coming to New Orleans must be aware of the potential of bacterial infection. The floodwaters are contaminated with disease-carrying bacteria which will linger on the ground and other surfaces as the waters recede. Upon returning from their trips into the French Quarter, Davenport immediately sends the volunteers to the nurse’s station where they thoroughly wash their hands and arms and step their shoes into a 10-percent bleach solution to kill any germs and prevent contamination of their living quarters in a Baton Rouge church.

He added that he has acquired through his contacts a supply of antibiotics for use by the volunteers “just in case.”

Those contacts and a “can do” attitude got things done in the initial stages of the relief effort. Upon arriving at the base camp in Baton Rouge just after the storm passed, Davenport had 60 volunteers ready to work, but nothing for them to do.

“We’re small and we’re Texans and we believe in doing what it takes to get things done,” Davenport said. Within minutes of seeing the need for priorities such as drinking water, SBTC volunteer Larry Shine, pastor of Pine Forest Baptist Church in Onalaska, Texas, was on the phone to county officials back in the Lone Star State. The next morning, two stainless steel tanker trucks filled with 6,000 gallons of water were in Baton Rouge.

If that wasn’t enough, some from Davenport’s team retrofitted spigots onto the tankers and drove the trucks east on I-10 looking for people who needed fresh water.

When the SBTC crews were finally allowed to go into New Orleans, their caravan of four canteens passed a convoy of police cars pulled over to the side of the road. The officers also were heading into town but had stopped to put on their Kevlar protective jackets before entering the city.

As he described the situation Sunday over a cell phone to his wife who was driving to church in Euless, Texas, Davenport looked at the yellow disaster relief T-shirts he and his companions were wearing and reassured her that they, too, were wearing their armor.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

Davenport replied, “The armor of God.”

    About the Author

  • Bonnie Pritchett