Isaac assessment team visits New Orleans District on second day of tour

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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 toured areas in the state hard-hit by Hurricane Isaac. This is a report on what they found on the second day of the tour.

The Rev. Regina Hickman, pastor of First United Methodist Church in LaPlace, La., shared with members of a Louisiana Annual (regional) Conference storm assessment team that she was prepared for the emotions associated with flood damage to her church from Hurricane Isaac.

“In 2005, I pastored United Methodist churches in Grand Isle and Golden Meadow. Hurricane Katrina severely impacted the parsonage at Grand Isle, and Hurricane Rita damaged the sanctuary in Golden Meadow,” said Hickman. Now she is dealing with the cleanup from damages caused by one foot of standing floodwater in the LaPlace sanctuary.

She told Louisiana Area Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey, former head of the United Methodist Committee on Relief, that the storm-weary congregation worshipped in the church parking lot Sept. 2, using a single guitar to provide music. Members of a nearby Lutheran church joined the group.

“We didn’t have power, and it was hot outside, but we came together to worship God,” Hickman said. “I needed to see the faces of my congregation. I needed to know they were OK.”

Floodwaters from the storm left standing water in much of the city and knocked out power in most of its homes. Nearly 3,500 people were evacuated from the area.

“Several of my church members were rescued from their homes by boat,” said Hickman, who added that most of those families have returned home. “Unfortunately, about one quarter of those people are still without power. Of course, schools are not in session.”

In the church, United Methodist volunteers sorted through wet hymnals and sheet music. “At first, I tried to help look through the music, but every time I picked something up, it broke my heart,” Hickman said. “I really do appreciate their help,” said the pastor, who is working with a professional company on cleanup and repairs to the flooded building.

Despite its hardships, the church will serve as a distribution site for much-needed cleaning buckets, bleach, tarps and health kits provided through the UMCOR Sager-Brown Depot in Baldwin, La. Volunteers from the Wesley Foundation at Tulane University plan to assist with the distribution.

The outpouring of offers for help from others has touched Hickman. “One of our older members, Mr. Leo, came by yesterday and handed me a check. ‘I forgot to give you my offering on Sunday,’ he said. I was really moved because his house had three feet of water in it.”

The conference assessment team, led by Harvey, traveled farther into the hard-hit New Orleans District of the conference. At First United Methodist Church in Kenner, the Rev. Beth Tu’uta was dealing with damage caused by a leaking roof and water that came under church doors during Hurricane Isaac.

“Most of my congregation and the surrounding community has been impacted, especially due to a lack of electrical power,” said Tu’uta, acknowledging that that the city of Kenner is “still coming back” from the effects of Hurricane Katrina, which hit the city in 2005.

Although the church sustained damage, the pastor is reaching out to the community by providing Internet access to those who need it. “We have Internet, but no phone,” she added. “People need to get online to find out about community services and to contact family members who left the city.”

Members of First United already are assisting with gutting houses in Slidell, La. The church also hopes to serve as a housing station for disaster-response teams, much as it did in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Tu’uta is anxious to get the church’s facilities back in order so the congregation can proceed with several programs focusing on community outreach. The church offers GED and English-as-a-second-language classes while providing childcare to those with small children. “We intend to add citizenship classes, also,” she said. “With the use of 15 computers, we will be starting a center that will assist folks with finding services and with filling out job applications.”

This autumn, the church hopes to start a community garden on a patch of land behind the church building. “We have several chefs and a nutritionist in our congregation. We hope to teach folks how to grow and share their own food, to cook it and to provide nutritionally sound meals to their families,” said Tu’uta.

In New Orleans, First Street United Methodist Church is serving as a distribution point for cleaning buckets and health kits supplied through UMCOR. The centrally located, 179-year-old church, which sustained minor storm damage, serves as an ideal spot for supply pickups.

“On Sunday morning, we had ‘work’-ship instead of worship,” said the Rev. Martha Orphe. “We had members of all ages assisting with distributing hundreds of cleaning buckets and thousands of medical kits to people in surrounding neighborhoods.”

First Street will house AmeriCorps volunteers and plans to continue serving as a supply distribution center.

Harvey also led the assessment team to Gretna United Methodist Church, which lost its steeple to Isaac’s gusting winds. “Unfortunately, water let in from the steeple opening and other leaks in the roof caused us to have about an inch of water throughout the entire sanctuary and other areas of the church building,” said the Rev. Tim Smith.

He is concerned that the large sanctuary may need a new roof and estimates that damages could exceed $300,000.

The Rev. Becky Conner, pastor of Belle Chasse United Methodist Church in Plaquemines Parish, is relieved that damages to the church facility were minor. “Generally, Belle Chasse fared better than other parts of the parish. Power is still out for lots of folks, and a number of families are not back yet. We’ve delayed our mother’s day out program for at least a week,” she said.

Conner spoke with the conference assessment team about parking an UMCOR truck in the church lot to serve as a distribution point for cleaning buckets, medical kits, water and tarps. “People from hard-hit Buras come into Belle Chasse for their regular supplies,” she said. “We can serve a great need here.”

The Rev. Tim Neustifter, pastor of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Monroe, was visiting the Belle Chasse church when the conference assessment team arrived. A lieutenant colonel and chaplain in the Louisiana Air National Guard, he is temporarily stationed at the Belle Chasse Air Force Base, assisting with disaster relief efforts.

He and others from his unit participated in the evacuation of nearly 30 people from Braithwaite, a small community across the Mississippi River from Belle Chasse. “We used flat-bottom boats to reach the houses, which were flooded up the roofs. When we got to a house, we would beat on the roof to see is someone was there. Then we had to break into the top of the homes to pull people out,” he explained.

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

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