Guest commentary by Mike Watson
Three hours. That’s how long it took a group of church volunteers on Sunday, August 14, to move beds and couches, clean rooms, wash sheets, and set up the University Presbyterian Church (UPC) shelter. The first family: mother, father and four children arrived not long after everything was in place. Less than a day later, there was a growing list of volunteers to run the office, prepare nightly dinners and collect and organize donations. Over the course of the week, the shelter received four more families whose houses had been completely destroyed by floodwaters.
The statistics from the Louisiana flood of 2016 are staggering. Over the course of 72 hours, over 20 inches of rain soaked the area around Baton Rouge. As of August 22, Gov. John Bel Edwards’ office estimated 60,646 houses were damaged and 30,000 people were rescued. FEMA says 109,398 people or households have applied for housing help, and 25,000 National Flood Insurance Program claims have been filed. Early in the week, around 11,000 people were in shelters after being rescued. Two weeks later, while that number is down to just above 2,000, many of those left have no homes to return to, nor friends or family nearby who can shelter them. That’s where faith communities are called to respond.
UPC has always responded to this call. After the horrific flooding from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the congregation opened its doors as a shelter to newborn infants and their families. Recently, UPC remodeled its building to prepare for future disasters with new dorm space and showers. Now, 11 years after Katrina, UPC has once again opened its doors as a shelter to families with newborns and the medically fragile. The families staying with us lost everything in the flood and had nowhere else to go. One family spends most of the day with their 6-year-old child at the hospital; another family is with their 5-month-old child in NICU; one family is struggling with cancer; and others are cleaning their homes, taking care of their infants or retuning to work.
As soon as waters receded, the response to help clear out flood-damaged houses began. Armies of volunteers jumped in to help those first few days from within the church, throughout the city and beyond. UPC opened its fellowship hall to host 15-20 volunteers from Nechama, a group based in Minnesota that provides clean-up and recovery assistance to homes and businesses affected by natural disasters around the country. Finding people whose homes have been damaged has not been difficult. There is a continuously growing list of needs. Responses have been great, yet this is only the beginning of a long recovery.
Presbyterian Disaster Assistance arrived at UPC shortly after the flooding to consult with the Presbytery of South Louisiana about long-term recovery needs. They are currently registering groups who want to assist once a volunteer system is established.
In the midst of this difficult time, the Holy Spirit has been moving, mobilizing so many people to respond and help one another with whatever gifts they have to offer. Churches from around the nation have been contacting UPC and the Presbytery of South Louisiana to offer prayers, words of support, donations and desires to send volunteer teams. UPC is grateful for this growing cloud of witnesses.
As the city moves into the rebuilding phase, the focus is solidarity. Rather than getting discouraged by debates over political visits and media coverage, volunteers have been pulling up floor tiles with crowbars, moving refrigerators and “mucking” houses of family, friends, neighbors and strangers. Many in South Louisiana are still coming to terms with what has happened and what lies ahead. What matters most now are the resources to assist in rebuilding. FEMA funding has been approved, donations from within and outside the city have been growing and hopefully many more volunteers will answer the call to serve Baton Rouge in the months and years to come. UPC will continue to minister to the needs of those inside the church’s building and beyond the church walls. Prayers are continuously appreciated as God continues to be present in the midst of disaster. The Holy Spirit continues to move. Let us respond.
MIKE WATSON is the associate pastor at University Presbyterian Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where he has served for four years. He married his wife, Melody, this past March.
If you feel called to respond, you are invited to donate to the UPC shelter.
Donations can also be made to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.
If you have a group interested in coming to volunteer, please reach out to the PDA call center: [email protected] or 866-732-6121.