We had a very productive disaster response mission in and around the Ponchatoula, Louisiana, area and one in Pass Christian, Mississippi, from the horribly devastating effects from Hurricane Ida on Aug. 29, 2021.
It was the second most damaging and intense hurricane in Louisiana's history -- behind Hurricane Katrina. Wind speeds of 147 mph shredded trees and homes in the Ponchatoula area, leaving unprecedented destruction and chaos.
A 13-person SC United Methodist Volunteers In Mission (UMVIM) Early Response Team (ERT) had boots on the ground hard at work three days after receiving the call for help. We responded from Sept. 6-11, with many chainsaws and supplies, including a fully equipped disaster response trailer, skid steer and a mini excavator.
We touched many lives, while our lives were also touched with true tears of joy and loving emotions. Survivors were devastated physically, mentally and financially. Many lost everything they owned. The large majority were without electricity, running water, ice and the bare essentials we so often take for granted. Some had generators but fuel supply was very limited. It was hot and very muggy days with little relief at night. The missions were extremely hard and even dangerous but very meaningful, fruitful and fulfilling.
We touched the homes of over 33 families doing heavy chainsaw, machinery and tarp work. We moved everything from limbs, mangled metal, furniture to huge trees while making egress to homes and removing trees and debris off of homes. Our machinery and its smooth operators made jobs that would have taken days turn into hours.
Our roofing/tarping crews were of the highest priority to stop any further damage from rain and such. We use high quality tarps that can last up-to a year. Roofers and carpenters are hard to come by especially in the aftermath of such as wide spread disaster.
Our highest priorities are always the survivors and everyone God has put into our paths. This includes other volunteers, emergency workers, community personnel and people hosting us. The physical task of making their homes safe, sanitary and secure are important but our highest priority is always the people God directs us to. We listen to them, cry with them, pray with them, help them in every way we can. We then leave them with glimpses of God’s love through scripture, prayer, actions and gestures of pure Christian love.
Every person and family are special to us, but some stand out. The whole town came out to help an elderly blind woman. While we were putting a tarp on her damaged roof, two men came to put up a new electrical weather head since the old one was destroyed. We assisted them in their task and were able to witness to them and give them scripture cross pens inscribed with John 3:16.
An UMC ERT group form Arkansas was assessing damaged homes and getting home owner’s signatures so we could work on them. We were sent to one home of an elderly widow named Clara Russell. Her home was mostly intact except for two walls and a rear section of roof that had a huge oak tree lying in it. We worked relentlessly for three hours cutting away debris from the electrical weather head so electrical power could possibly be restored and clearing off piles of limbs and debris from her roof. We then put a tarp over the holes. After we finished we were totally exhausted and laying out in the shade when she drove up.
At first, she was angry towards us -- thinking that we were contractors about to charge her thousands of dollars. She broke down crying when she found out that we were United Methodist and all of our work was free. As we gathered for prayer before we left her home, Mrs. Russell started crying again and began lifting praise so loudly to God that her voice rose over the Rev. Mike Evan’s prayer for her and the community.
Many people get taken advantage of by roofers and tree companies looking to make big profits in the aftermath of disasters. We have heard countless stories of where people were charged astronomical prices to remove trees from their home and property plus put on tarps -- prices from $6000 to $62,000 were told to us in this storm alone. There is nothing wrong with contractors asking a fair price but price gouging people who are so vulnerable and already hurting so badly after a disaster is simply cruel and totally unethical. When people find out that our services and ministry are free, they always start immediately giving thanks and praise to God.
There were many other such stories from every family we helped, including a woman nicknamed "Annie Oakley," because she wore a pistol on her side to protect herself and her possessions. One of our teams had the honor and privilege of helping celebrity John Schneider cut up and remove two dangerous trees at his camp that is often used for children’s ministries.
We worked in conjunction and side-by-side with other United Methodist ERTs from Louisiana, Missouri, Arkansas, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Texas and Mississippi. The Family of God — all together we were — “God's Church being the church as He has called us to be!” Each team shared food, resources and personnel to make the overall goal of being God's hands and feet to others during such a hurting time — the ultimate goal.
First UMC of Ponchatoula did a wonderful job hosting us and accepting us as family. They provided shelter, food, showers and warm Christian fellowship to us. Their ministry also reached out to the community as they also became a point of distribution for water, ice, flood buckets, tarps, health kits and other essential items.
ERT volunteer responders from South Carolina were: Rev. Mike Evans of Edgefield, Rev. Fred. Buchanan of Orangeburg, Rev. Stephen Turner of Seneca, Mac and Michael Whitmire of Seneca, Jill Evans of Salem, Curtis Burnett of Greenwood, Worth Adams and Wade Dickens of Florence, David Armstrong of Fort Mill, Hank Edens of Dalzell, Jerry Pullen of James Island and Billy Robinson of North. David Armstrong’s brother Nathan Armstrong also joined us from Texas.
Billy Robinson is a SC UMVIM ERT coordinator