By Kathy L. Gilbert
United Methodist News Service
MARINGOUIN, La. — Beams of Heaven As I Go and Thy Way O Lord were the two hymns that the congregation at Shiloh United Methodist Church was singing on the day before Hurricane Gustav ripped off their roof.
Four days following the Sunday worship service, after the winds had died down and the rain finally stopped, hymnals were still open on the waterlogged piano and colorful artwork still hung on the church's buckling paneled walls.
The scene was poignant as United Methodist Bishop William W. Hutchinson toured the wind-whipped sanctuary with representatives of the Louisiana Annual Conference and the United Methodist Committee on Relief. The contingent was visiting churches in the state's hardest hit areas on Sept. 4 to assess damage from the Sept. 1 storm.
"There is water still coming in," said Hutchison, as he carefully removed pictures from the walls and gently placed them in a sheltered part of the small African-American church in Maringouin, about 25 miles northwest of Baton Rouge.
Shiloh suffered the most damage of churches visited by the team. The group made a driving tour through Maringouin, Lafayette, New Iberia, Franklin, Morgan City, Houma, Dulac and Thibodaux. More areas of Louisiana will be visited in next few days as assessments continue.
"We are going to have to be diligent in searching out communities affected by this hurricane," said the Rev. Tom Hazelwood of UMCOR. "I am thinking it is going to be easy to overlook people who are hurting because the damage is not so obvious. We are going to have to use our Wesleyan heritage and go to the people, not wait for them to come to us."
'Could have been a lot worse'
The Rev. Lamar Oliver, pastor of Pharr Chapel in Morgan City, echoed the thoughts of many pastors in the state.
"It could have been a lot worse," Oliver said as walked the group along the outside of the historic church, built in 1878.
The chapel rode out the punishing winds without any of its 91 windows breaking. A large tree behind the church spilt in two, and a rental building owned by the church has roof damage.
"The patio on the parsonage was lost, but that is no big deal," Oliver said. The church led by his wife, the Rev. Erin J. Oliver, in nearby Franklin, was also left unscathed.
The Rev. Scott Bullock, First United Methodist Church, New Iberia, was helping volunteers pack up home-grilled hamburgers to feed National Guard members and a VIM team from Indiana who were clearing debris under hot, humid skies.
Sager Brown, a warehouse depot owned and operated by UMCOR in Baldwin, La., also reported no major problems from the storm. Staff and volunteers were evacuated to the church's conference center in Alexandria, La., more than 100 miles away.
Volunteer coordinator Diana Dudleson said damage was worse in Alexandria than in Baldwin. "It was terrible Monday night (Sept. 1)," she said. "The wind tore the place apart."
Sager Brown re-opened for business on Sept. 7 .
A United Methodist Native American church and community center in Dulac, La., faired better in this storm than in 2005's twin terrors, Katrina and Rita. Dulac is usually one of Louisiana's hardest hit areas because of its location on the tip of the state.
"I am so relieved," said the Rev. Amy Mercer, deputy director of the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Center. Speaking by phone to a friend who had worked the past three years to repair the church and community center, she said "it will probably still break your heart but it is not too bad."
Seagulls, egrets and mosquitoes made themselves at home in the water surrounding the Native American church, Clanton Chapel, and the community center. Mercer said they had just finished renovating one of the buildings.
Wind vs. flooding
While not as dramatic as predicted by weather forecasters, Gustav was still a very damaging storm, Hutchinson said. "I don't want to oversell it or undersell it-because the day will come when we will have a worst one," the bishop said.
The most pressing immediate need is for work teams to help clear debris.
"What we need now are chainsaw gangs that can saw wood and get these trees out of the way so power can be restored," he said. "There are still some 800,000 people without power in the state."
Volunteers also will be needed to cover homes with tarps and later with new roofs. Cleanup crews and mission teams wanting to assist should contact the conference disaster response ministry at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 225-346-5193.
Hutchinson said the conference still has two more years of work with Katrina and Rita and will add Gustav cleanup and rebuilding to that workload.
"People can volunteer to come work for Katrina, Rita or Gustav, and we will keep those three separate. I think we are going to be able to do what we need to do with the structure that is already in place."
Mercer said Gustav was an important storm-not necessarily because of the damage it left behind but because of the preparation leading up to it.
"Louisiana needed to know it could survive another hurricane, and we did," she said.
To aid Gustav recovery work, send financial donations to UMCOR Advance No. 3019695, "Hurricanes 2008, Hurricane Gustav." Mail checks to UMCOR, P.O. Box 9068, New York, NY 10087, and write the Advance number and name on the memo line of the check. Credit-card donations can be made at http://secure.gbgm-umc.org/donations/umcor/donate.cfm?code=3019695&id=3019695.