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Louisiana conference assessment team visits areas affected by Isaac

Editor’s Note: Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey of the Louisiana Annual (regional) Conference; the Rev. Tom Hazelwood, head of the United Methodist Committee on Relief’s U.S. disaster relief team, and disaster relief coordinators from the Louisiana Conference this week began toured areas in the state hard-hit by Hurricane Isaac. This is the report on what they found Monday, Sept. 3.

By Betty Backstrom

Troy Guitreau, a member of the Maurepas Volunteer Fire Department, affirmed that “a lot of people in Louisiana are suffering” from the effects of flooding caused by Hurricane Isaac.

The Category 1 storm caused crushing water damage and power outages in Maurepas and in neighboring towns like Whitehall and Head of Island, said Guitreau, who is a member of the board of trustees for Huff Chapel United Methodist Church in nearby Killian, La.

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Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey of the Louisiana area visits with Samantha Breaud, fire chief for the Maurepas volunteer fire department. Photos courtesy of Betty Backstrom.

The Rev. Milton Bourque, pastor of Huff Chapel United Methodist Church, guided a damage assessment team from the Louisiana Annual (regional) Conference on Labor Day through some of the hardest hit areas in South Livingston Parish. Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey of the Louisiana Episcopal Area led the team, which was joined by the Rev. Tom Hazelwood, assistant general secretary for disaster response in the United States for United Methodist Committee on Relief.

The team rode through the affected areas in a 2.5-ton army transport vehicle driven by Guitreau. The massive truck belongs to the volunteer fire department.

“I’ve probably gotten only 20 hours of sleep since the storm began,” Guitreau said. “The fire department helped most of Thursday and Friday in rescuing around 50 people who were trapped in their houses.”

Standing floodwaters have cut off area residents from access to food supplies, water and ice. “Since there is no electricity available, people have lost their water. Most folks have their own pump-driven water wells that need electricity to work. Basically, they are out of everything,” Guitreau said.

The day the team arrived, the fire department was distributing ice, water and sand for sandbags.

In nearby Ponchatoula, First United Methodist Church has been distributing cleaning buckets provided by UMCOR through the Sager Brown Depot in Baldwin, La. More buckets are being delivered to the church and to the fire station for immediate distribution.

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The Rev. Tom Hazelwood of the United Methodist Committee on Relief takes pictures of the flooded road leading to Lee’s Landing United Methodist Church.

The Rev. Darryl Tate, director for the conference disaster relief ministry, said more than 1,500 cleaning buckets and 8,000 health kits from the depot are being distributed to affected areas. Eighteen pallets of water and 16 pallets of bleach and tarps also are being distributed. Requests for more cleaning buckets already have been made.

Although the Ponchatoula church parsonage sustained damage because of a fallen tree, the church building was not damaged. The congregation is actively involved in disaster relief efforts, including providing meals to Red Cross volunteers, said the Rev. Mike McLaurin, the pastor.

After leaving Ponchatoula, the conference assessment team traveled to nearby Lee’s Landing United Methodist Church. The pastor, the Rev. Spiller Milton, greeted the group, but the team was not able to reach the flooded church because of high waters that covered the road leading to the church.

While Bishop Harvey visited with Milton, a local resident, Gene Coumes, drove by and joined in the conversation. Coumes explained that he and others used a truck with oversized tires to help rescue several people that were trapped in areas near Lee’s Landing United Methodist Church. “My mom lives there, and I own a camp in the area,” Coumes said.

A stop in Mandeville, La., took the group to Newell United Methodist Churc, which is blocks away from Lake Pontchartrain. The self-reliant congregation had already ripped up soggy carpet and was attempting to salvage. Unfortunately, Newell sustained some roof damage and the sanctuary’s flooring foundation likely is damaged.

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Gene Coumas visits with Milton, Cottrill and Bourque on the flooded road leading to Lee’s Landing United Methodist Church. Coumas in his truck (left) rescued several members of the community trapped by floodwaters.

The Rev. Nolan Robinson is eager to get the church and congregation back on their feet. “We had worship on Sunday, but we only had half our usual number. I think a number of people couldn’t get in because of flooding,” Robinson said.

Later in the day, the assessment team visited First United Methodist Church in Slidell to discuss the church’s plans to house disaster response volunteers. Although a number of area homes were damaged by Isaac’s winds and rain, the church building escaped with minor damage.

The church in Slidell was not so fortunate during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 when the sanctuary was under four feet of water. Bishop Harvey noted a commemorative plaque in the church’s sanctuary marking the water line left by the Katrina flood.

Escorted by the Rev. Wybra Price, the team visited the church’s Family Life Center, which will be filled with bunk beds to house disaster response teams as they arrive to gut and rebuild homes.

“Church volunteers have already gutted two homes in the area. We are blessed to reach out to our community and to serve as a staging area for the recovery,” Price said.

The team’s final stop in Slidell led them to the Epworth Project, a disaster recovery ministry housed on the campus of Aldersgate United Methodist Church.

Epworth Project, an outgrowth of conference disaster response efforts from Hurricane Katrina, now operates in collaboration with local agencies to finish construction projects still lingering from that storm and to assist the underserved in the community with other construction needs not related to the storm.

“Teams are ramping up to come to Louisiana to help us in our recovery from Hurricane Isaac. We are able to house the teams, train them and deploy them to meet the needs of the community. We have one team that traveled down 73 times after Katrina. They still want to keep coming,” said Dale Kimball, executive director of Epworth Project.

Backstrom is the director of communications for the Louisiana Annual (regional) Conference.

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