It’s one thing to know a hurricane is coming — the forecasters sounded the alarm about Ike loud and clear. It’s another to feel the force of the storm, to hear the wind bearing down and the sounds of things being torn asunder, to see the water covering the streets and the houses, the familiar terrain being swallowed up.
South Texas from Galveston to Houston took a beating. The early reckonings show the Presbyterian churches in the area seemed to have escaped severe damage, although no contact has been made with several on the west side of Galveston Island, which took the first hit from Ike. But what challenges and losses congregants face from their damaged homes and businesses remains to be seen.
“We seem to have weathered this storm very well,” said Mike Cole, general presbyter of New Covenant presbytery, which serves southeastern Texas. “Presbyterians are nothing if not resilient. Everyone I’ve spoken to has been pretty upbeat and positive. We’ve got lots and lots of people who are still without power, including myself. … But people are making the best of it, and working together. It’s been pretty amazing to watch.”
First Church in Orange, Texas, suffered some water damage, but nothing severe, Cole said — and it helped, he added, that in that building the sanctuary is on the second floor.
Cole and other presbytery officials are planning a conference call today (Sept. 16) with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance to get a more comprehensive view of the destruction and the needs.
News reports from the hardest-hit areas near Galveston, however, make it clear that the damage there is severe. “We’ve still got to get physically into some of these communities and assess what the damages are beyond the church buildings,” Cole said. “Millions of people have been affected by this. We’ll just take it a step at a time, try to pull our resources together to address the initial needs.”
He added: “It makes me wonder and worry for folks in South Louisiana. How do you do it? How do you pull yourselves up by your bootstraps one more time?”
In coastal Louisiana, indeed, Ike blew down misery upon misery. Many of the areas flooded are still recovering from earlier storms, including Hurricane Gustav, which pounded Haiti and Cuba before striking Louisiana at the start of September.
“The impact from Ike around South Louisiana is actually kind of grim,” and the flooding is causing “major problems,” said Alan Cutter, executive presbyter of the Presbytery of South Louisiana. In areas that were still recovering from Hurricane Gustav and where water levels already were high, the storm surge from Ike has pushed a bad situation into worse.
Roads are impassable; communication is spotty; some communities have imposed curfews.
“All of the coastal parishes up into Lake Maurepas and up into Slidell suffered significant flooding,” Cutter said. “Indeed, right now you cannot get from Houma to New Orleans because the roads are flooded. … When you take the water that piled up from Gustav and put on top the water piled up from Ike, then you have a real problem.”
And the blows have been consecutive starting with Katrina three years ago.
One family from St. Andrew Parish, who just got back into their house three months ago, saw that house washed away by Ike, Cutter said.
A small Presbyterian church in Raceland, Louisiana, lost its slate roof, which is expensive to repair, to Katrina, and while the roof has been fixed, the congregation has not been able to afford insurance for the roof, Cutter said. They slid through with Gustav, but Ike has knocked the caps off the roof, he said. “Oh my heavens,” will that be expensive, Cutter said.
Another church, Atkinson Memorial Church in Morgan City, was still waiting for an insurance adjuster to come to examine the damage Gustav inflicted. “Now he can come and look after Ike too,” Cutter said.
And two volunteer villages that Presbyterian Disaster Assistance operates — the “Good Earth” site in Houma, Louisiana, and a site in Pearlington, Mississippi — about 25 miles west of Biloxi — took a hit from Gustav on Sept. 1. At the Good Earth site, Gustav destroyed all the temporary housing pods where volunteers involved in the long-term cleanup from Katrina and Rita sleep while on work trips. And six pods were lost in Pearlington, according to the Presbyterian News Service.
For residents of south Louisiana, the cumulative effects of storm after storm are devastating, Cutter said. “I think you get numb to it,” he said. “In part, the numbness helps explain some of the southern Louisiana attitude of ‘Let the good times roll.’ I do think what we’re seeing with the consecutive storms after Katrina, Rita, and now Gustav, Ike is that people are — well, they’re becoming just more numb, a little more disoriented. It’s a little harder to pick up each time. This whole business of trauma, it builds on itself,” like when soldiers serve consecutive tours of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan.
“More and more people are talking about just moving out,” Cutter said. “They can’t handle another storm.”
After leaving Texas, Ike also took a lick at the Midwest, causing destruction and some deaths in Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, and Ohio. In Shelby County in Kentucky, for example, a 10-year-old boy was killed when a burst of high wind knocked a limb off a tree while he was cutting the grass at his family’s farm — a chore Frederick Wilson did each week to help earn his allowance. The branch struck him on the head and killed him.
In New Covenant Presbytery, Cole has set up a temporary presbytery office at Clear Lake Church in Houston, which still has power. “Our church building never lost power throughout the whole storm,” said Stephen Oglesbee, Clear Lake’s pastor. “So we’ve been able to be a resource for people to check e-mail and charge their cell phones and get out of the heat,” although the weather now has cooled.
Some church members have experienced flooding, and many evacuated, so on Sept. 14, Clear Lake did not hold a regular Sunday morning worship service. But about 15 people did gather at the church, Oglesbee said, for a time of prayer and Scripture reading.
In the days to come, the church will try to contact every member to assess needs and see how the congregation might help.
“People are being very resilient in all this, sort of rolled up their sleeves and are doing what needs to be done,” Oglesbee said. “They’re grateful to God for what they do have and what they didn’t lose, and prayerful and mindful of others who have lost more.”
Grace Presbytery, in northern Texas, seems to have escaped severe damage.
After checking with the congregations, “everybody seems to be fine,” said Rick Carus, associate general presbyter. “Northeast Texas for the most part weathered the storm fairly well” and “we missed out on any major hits,” although there were high winds, downed trees and branches, and some power outages. But “damage seems to be quite light” Carus said, and “we were expecting a lot worse.”
Receiving only a light touch from Ike will “prepare us to go help our friends in Galveston” and elsewhere in Texas, Carus said.
There, as the waters slide away, the true impact of what’s been damaged and lost will be revealed.
How can Presbyterians help?
Cutter suggests offering prayer, sending work teams and donations to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance or the affected presbyteries.