By Kathy L. Gilbert, United Methodist News Service
Six trillion gallons of rainwater fell in just three days in southern Louisiana. The recovery, though, will take years.
Rivers ran over their banks, and when the waters receded, thousands had lost homes, churches, schools, and places of business. Their possessions ended up in piles of debris on the sides of the roads. About the only means of transportation saved were boats, tractors, and four-wheel drive vehicles. Tragically, 13 people died.
A piano, ruined by floodwaters, sits outside Hope Community United Methodist Church in Baton Rouge, La. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.
A majority of those who lost their homes in the Aug. 12-14 rains did not have flood insurance because they lived in places that were never supposed to flood.
When your family, friends and neighbors are all equally devastated, where do you turn? For many, the answer is their church families. And for United Methodists, that church family reaches around the globe as many prepare to come to the rain-soaked state to help with recovery efforts.
These are a few stories about United Methodists caught in the flood and those who are helping them recover.
Elizabeth Kammer peers out the door of her home that has been gutted to the wall studs after historic flooding in Denham Springs, La. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.
Kammer is a “two-striper” — a survivor of Hurricane Katrina and now the August floods. The member of First United Methodist Church, Denham Springs, got the title from her church family because twice she has lost everything she owned to a natural disaster.
She landed in Denham Springs as she fled Hurricane Katrina from her east New Orleans home in 2005.
“I lived here since Katrina, it’s a good town … or it was,” she said, laughing. “The Chamber of Commerce lied to me.”
Kammer’s home is a complete loss, but she plans to build a new home on her property behind the existing house.
“This was better than Katrina because I got to paw through my stuff,” she said, pointing to the big debris pile outside her front door. “With Katrina I just never knew where my stuff went and that bothered me more than anything else. Somewhere in the swamp is all my pictures (from Katrina),” she said, shaking her head.
“But it is only stuff, you remember all those good times whether you can look at the pictures or not,” she said with her “can do, will survive” good-natured attitude.
Kammer ended up at First United Methodist Church because she needed “to be fed” in a church. She went to the Yellow Pages and under United Methodist churches, First was first.
Remembering that day, she said she sobbed so loud and hard “everyone must have thought I was crazy.” One of her first friends was church member Julie Norris who on that Sunday walked across the aisle with a box of Kleenex. “She kept handing me tissues and put her arms around me. We did church like that for about six weeks,” Kammer said. Norris also lost her home in this flood.
The Rev. Jackie King describes flood recovery efforts at First United Methodist Church in Denham Springs, La. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.
First United Methodist flooded in the 1920s and then burned down in 1970 and again in 2007. It serves as a Red Cross shelter, but had to be evacuated as the floodwaters rose.
“Words can’t describe the moment I realized the church didn’t flood,” said the Rev. Jackie King, pastor of First United Methodist.
King is still trying to find and speak to all her church members. But the church is open and handing out relief supplies as well as organizing recovery teams.
Broken church pews and a gutted sanctuary are about all that’s left of the church Jones said he and his wife were sent to establish 15 years ago.
“To see the broken pews on the ground, it’s like seeing pieces of your child’s body, like arms and legs. I walked down and touched and blessed every one of those pews every Sunday morning,” said the pastor of Hope Community United Methodist Church in Baton Rouge.
Jones, who suffers from a “bad back,” pointed to an office chair he sat in as he wheeled himself around the church tearing down sheet rock.
He said God has shown him that the church will come back but it will not look like the traditional sanctuary.
The Rev. H. Louis Jones takes a break from gutting flood-damaged drywall and pews at Hope Community United Methodist Church in Baton Rouge, La. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.
“Pews are more expensive than chairs, so we will have chairs. We can clean these floors and have them painted. I see an open baptism pool right up there,” he said, pointing to the back of the sanctuary. “I don’t believe God would be showing me all this if it wasn’t gonna happen.”
Hope Community was a small congregation but Jones said the church has an important role in providing ministry with the children in the community. In the summer, the church has a two-month-long camp and during the school year has a tutoring ministry on Tuesday and Thursday.
“It’s not about this church and this building and what it is going to look like. It’s what God wants to do for this community,” he said.
Paige and Brady Wax, members of First United Methodist Church, Baton Rouge, grew up in Denham Springs surrounded by members of both sides of their families. All 40, including Paige and Brady, were displaced by the flood.
“We had 14 households in our family in Denham Springs. Some people are staying with friends, in campers or trailers, everyone is scattered,” said Paige.
“Our family, both sides of our family, have been in Denham Springs for generations,” she said. No one had flood insurance because they were always told there was no way their neighborhood would flood. In the 200-house neighborhood, just four didn’t flood.
Brady Wax adjusts the thermostat at his home, which has been gutted to the wall studs, after heavy flooding in Denham Springs, La.
The young couple, who are expecting their first child in February, left their home around 9 a.m. on Saturday, Aug. 13, driving through water that was already up to the windows of Paige’s Jeep. “We took one last look at our house and said, ‘Let’s go, it’s just stuff.’ ”
With most of their family also homeless, it has been their church family helping them get through the tough days after the flood.
“We have had an army of saints from the church,” Paige said. Paige, who also works at First United Methodist Church in Baton Rouge, said every day, someone asks if her family needs anything.
“Usually if someone’s house burns down or floods there is someone who can come help, but in this case, 40 of us are going through a hard time,” Brady said.
And it is churches of all denominations that are coming to the rescue of the devastated Denham Springs, he said.
“I told someone today that I have been really lucky because I get to see the face of God every day in the people he sent to us. I know we are going to be OK,” Paige said.
“I have never been the victim. The Lord has blessed me my whole life,” said Reubin Gourley, who was standing in the ruined remains of the house he lived in for 20 years. “We don’t have flood insurance and it’s going to take a lot of years and hard labor to rebuild. But the stuff, I have perfect peace with losing stuff.”
Gourley, a member of Live Oak United Methodist Church in Watson, Louisiana, has enjoyed living close to the Amite River. He said everyone always told him, “If you ever flood, Denham Springs will be 10 feet underwater … and they were right. It went up to 46 feet, we only got about 15 inches of water in the house, it didn’t flip furniture or go over the kitchen cabinets. And it was only in the house for about 16 hours. That’s the good news.”
But the water that did get in was mixed with mud and sewage.
“The people who have helped us have been unbelievable. They were on their hands and knees scrubbing our cabinets with Borax to get rid of the sewage.”
Reubin Gourley says he has been overwhelmed by the generosity of volunteers after his home in Watson, La., was flooded. Gourley is a member of Live Oak United Methodist Church in Watson. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.
Gourley is one of those people more used to giving help than needing it, said the Rev. Mark Crosby, pastor of Live Oak.
On Aug. 13, Gourley was awakened by a friend at 5 a.m. telling him there were 200 people trapped and that we needed to go get them out. “He also told me I needed to get my family out.”
“The Lord blessed me with a tractor that never got stuck,” he said. “At one point, I looked up and the headlights on my tractor was shining across the field and there were old ladies, kids, men, women, carrying trash bags over their shoulders walking across a field that was going underwater.”
Gourley recently retired from a company where he worked for 37 years. He was looking forward to paying off his house and “life was going to be good.”
“God has given me whatever it takes to let go of the stuff. I don’t care about stuff, about anything I lost. When you get enough problems there is just so many more important things.”