Saturday, September 20, 2008

Southern Baptists & Disaster Relief

My friend Evelyn Brown was part of a team with the Southern Baptists that went to Louisiana to help with the damage from Hurricane Ike. Here is the email she sent telling us how it all went. It's a bit long, but Evelyn is a great story teller. You will feel like you were there with her:

Well, I (Evelyn) have just returned from another first of my of the many adventures that keep me looking forward to each new day.

Last Friday (12th), I was called for the first time to go on a Southern Baptist Convention Disaster Relief team to Louisiana as they had just been hit with Gustav and Ike was expected within hours. I was asked to be a can opener on a food unit. Now, I was trained last year to work either in a cook unit or a communications unit (HAM, etc), and with only one practice session, I felt I could open cans just fine. They have this awesome can opener that is so powerful it cuts a #10 can and suctions off the lid in a quick maneuver. It's so powerful, the operator has to have both hands on buttons to be sure that neither hand can be near this blade. After being told Friday night that we were on hold for departure, I soon learned that these massive maneuvers of hundreds (thousands) of people are quite a logistics effort.

Anyway, we left Saturday morning at 8 a.m. I only knew one other person on my traveling team. I was traveling with a clean-up and recovery unit from First Baptist, Lutz (north of Tampa). We started as a convoy of 5 (1 5th wheel that held our "office", 1 clean-up and recovery trailer-exterior (has chain saws, ropes, chains, etc in it), 1 clean up and recovery trailer-interior (shovels, pressure washer, etc) 1 shower unit (has 3 mens and 2 ladies showers and a clothes washer and dryer with a heater), and one communications trailer (HAM base and portable units). The people were mostly FBC Lutz, but there were 2 from Bell Shoals BC here in Valrico, 1 from Eden BC in Brooksville, 1 from Orlando, and me from Kings Avenue BC, Brandon. There were 11 of us to start with, 2 women and 9 men.

We drove Saturday to Pensacola where we were the first to arrive at our first "staging" center. In the next few hours about 50 more people gathered from various places in Florida. The grassed field next to the church was filled with trailers, 18-wheelers (2 kitchen units and 2 loaded entirely with food)----probably 20-30 units of different sizes; it was an awesome sight. We were overnight at a church in a residential area, but a news reporter happened by and she asked for a story, so the next morning about 7:30, a news crew from the local FOX station came out and filmed a story about this effort. Hope we get a copy to watch; would be interesting to see what they did with it.Anyway, during the evening there were many changes to the plans (or rumors of changes) as the logistics guys worked with the crews already on the ground in the areas just hit by Ike. We slept on the floor (many, including me, brought air mattresses) in the Sunday School classrooms. It was a nice place to stay. Remember, most of these people were experienced; I was one of several newbies.

The next morning, (Sunday) it was announced that our original Tampa convoy would continue to Golden Meadow LA. The rest of the FL units were headed to another staging area and then to Beaumont, TX. HEY!!! my 2 feeding units (these are huge semi trailer trucks...can serve about 30,000 meals/day) were going to Texas...I can't go, I have to stay with Tampa, or I may never get home!! And, at this moment it was announced I had just moved from can opener to head cook! They took about 10 cases of #10 cans of food, and a couple of hundred bottles of water and put them in one of our pickups, and we were sent off. At that time, we added 2 more units to our convoy....a huge generator on a flatbed (we were going into an area with no potable water and no electricity), and a large "dump" truck (large box with open top) full of blue tarps to put over roofs. The two additional guys were from Sarasota and Eustis, FL.

So now my "family" that are entrusting their lives and wellbeing to this can opener-turned-cook, counted l3....not a good number, you understand. The day was clear, no sign that there had been a hurricane in the west a few hours earlier. We got a lot of honks and waves from passing motorists as we headed west on I-10. All of the units have the Southern Baptist Convention Florida Disaster Relief team logo on the sides and backs, and a convoy of 7 units is quite impressive. There was no doubt who we were and why we were heading west. Had occasional small showers, but no wind which was good. Our shower trailer is a massive trailer, a bit to handle in a stiff wind. Even passing 18-wheelers really caused the drivers to hold on tightly.

As we traveled, we also passed convoys heading west from Alabama Power Co, and a tree trimming company out of Florida. At New Orleans we got off I-10 and headed south. It was about an hour before I noticed any damage and large stacks of brush that was probably from Gustav who had passed through 2 weeks earlier. Some of my new Lutz friends had just arrived back the previous Wednesday after being in this area for Gustav...and then they were activated 3 days later to come back to, essentially, the same area.We arrived at FBC Golden Meadow and began setting up. The church had sustained some roof damage during Gustav and the worship building was blue tarped. The family life center (which had been totally destroyed in Katrina and rebuilt) was our center of operations. We hooked up the generator and PRESTO!! ....we had lights and (more importantly, air conditioning) Like FL, it was hot and humid...but we are used to that.

The next day, the humidity dropped and the temp was great in the evening....but they do have HUGE mosquitoes, as you'd expect. As Bill's and my family now number about 17 when we go camping on the Current River, I realized I was totally up to the task of feeding this crew. I'd been doing mass feeding for years, and didn't realize it was in preparation for this time. I had an absolutely wonderful kitchen to work with. When they were rebuilding after Katrina, a deacon from a church in Houma, LA, had built them a custom kitchen. (He was a UPS driver). It was all oak cabinets, and was huge with a huge island in the middle. Gas stove, 3 sinks, 2 microwaves and 2 convection ovens. After seeing what food we'd been sent with, the first meal I fixed was canned beef stew (over old camping trick I've used with my kids for years to stretch a meal....Jenny, traveling in the 5th wheel, had 2 loaves of bread), macaroni and cheese out of a can (yes, it's as ghastly as it high in salt, it sucked the saliva right out of your mouth), and canned PEACHES. After supper, Jenny and I drove north to find the Wal-Mart we'd seen on the way in. Now, it's dark....and without power, all the houses are dark, and we're unfamiliar with this area.

As we headed north, we passed a long line of power company trucks headed south so knew they were staging for an onslaught on this no-power situation. We almost missed Wal-Mart as their generator had gone off and they were totally darkened. They said we couldn't shop (there were back-up lights .... tiny little things that gave an eery look to the store.) Jenny asked about other stores in the area, but you know me....they weren't going to get me to leave that easily....I pleaded the case.. "I have 15 relief workers to feed breakfast to and we need some food now". It worked. They sent me out in the store with a girl with a flashlight and we got almost everything on my list. Shelves were quite bare, so had to make some substitutions, but it was all fine. Freezer units were fogged up, so it's a good thing I hadn't gone out by myself...I would have had to open every one of them to find what I needed (they'd originally said I could go shopping by myself with a flashlight). As we couldn't check out, they had to write down the UPC codes and a description of everything (by flashlight, you remember) and get our personal information and local pastor's name, etc. before sending us out. They were all so nice.

On the way back, we drove and drove. Finally, we saw the Golden Meadow water tower....but, we looked at each other and said "we've never seen that tower before" so knew we'd missed the church in the dark. There were a few other buildings lit by generators, but we'd managed to miss ours, so we laughed and turned around and headed back north. Cell phones were working in the area, so we called for Jenny's husband to go to the corner with a flashlight to signal us, but we found the church before he got to the corner.

The next day, the crew had scrambled eggs, Jimmy Dean sausage, fried potatoes and onions, orange juice (well, we thought we were grabbing orange juice...turned out to be a fruit punch), both kinds of coffee.....and PEACHES. (left over from the night before). Actually, those peaches were served for every to be a joke. Finally, we decided to finish them off with a peach cobbler, but had to leave before getting that baked. Left the peaches and other food for the pastor. Next day, we went back to pay for our food and get the rest of our food for upcoming meals. The group ate well and was very appreciative. I was told not to bother using the canned food as it's so high in sodium, so they had more nutritious meals. Grabbed all the lettuce Wal-Mart had left and with their meat dish, made a wonderful salad bar, complete with choices, of cheese, eggs, fresh mushrooms, green peppers, green olives, tomatoes, etc. Other meals they had deviled eggs, cooked baby carrots with a light brown sugar butter glaze, and even a wonderful dessert my family loves called Mock Chocolate Eclair cake. They ate very well, and we all enjoyed it. Everyone chipped in when they could, and I rarely had to wash dishes or mop the floor. We had fun and it was a team effort.

While we were there, a pastor had arrived from Dothan, AL with diapers, wipes, toilet paper, paper toweling, mops, etc. The Golden Meadow pastor had the local radio station announce it, and cars lined up quickly and they were gone. Apparently, the FEMA and ARC cards that disaster victims get, don't cover these items. The stores in the area were out of them, so there is a great need.Golden Meadow is on a narrow peninsula. There was a levee 1 block west of us and another 1 block east of us. Those levees came together a few miles south of GM. That levee had held, but beyond it, homes were underwater. Grand Isle, where the road leads, was underwater and no one could access the area, so our crews spent their time removing trees from roofs and blue tarping houses in the GM area.

On Monday night, they announced, since the water wasn't receding and there weren't any more needs for our blue tarps, we'd be relocating in the a.m. to Houma, about an hour NW.Leaving the generator in GM to help that church (Hoama had electricity), we headed north. On the way we did see houses with water half way up their walls. We next lived at Mulberry BC in Houma. There were already teams there from S. Illinois (Metropolis, Cairo, etc), NM, MS, and NY. At a church across town (Houma is about 32,000) was a feeding unit from TN, so I didn't have to cook any more..and it's a good thing as our numbers were now 85! The kitchen help, though, had just left that day, so I was asked to find some help and take care of picking up meals and serving.

So, I was up each day at 4:30 starting coffee (those guys & gals drink LOTS of coffee), and going with another person to pick up food for about 100. There were 85 of us to start with and at its highest, we were at 92. A couple of church ladies came by and said they'd like to help us, so they furnished us a salad bar and desserts...a wonderful treat to those who had been there without this kind of food. The food unit does provide fresh fruit (bananas and apples), but no salads nor desserts.In GM, I'd had my own room (Jenny stayed in her 5th wheel), but now was sharing it with 6 other ladies, 3 from Temple Terrace (by Tampa), and 2 from IL and 1 from NY. The hardest part of that was getting a temperature that pleased everyone. I froze!! Next time I'll bring my sleeping bag. I wanted to conserve space this time, so had brought only sheets which is fine for home. Found some covers they'd had over a drum set and confiscated them for blankets. Good thing I'm a camper and not fussy about how dirty or dusty things are. Did a lot of tasks during the day while crews were out. Helped with admin things, mostly.

Met and interviewed walk-ins who were putting in requests. Talked on the phone with people whose homes were too wet for us to access. Had one (elderly?....they all sound elderly when under this stress) lady who'd returned to her home, but had to live on the second floor because the carpet on the first was water-logged. She asked for someone to come over and pull the carpet out. Had one young mother (could hear the kids in the background) who said things were drying out but to give it 3-4 more days before bringing in heavy equipment to remove trees and brush. (Other churches had brought bobcats, etc.) She said the water was slowly draining away from her home, but each time she went out, she was still faced with 3-4 cottonmouths who were using her patio for dry space.

The original request was for our team to be out for one week...then others come in to relieve you. We were planning to leave this morning (Saturday), but yesterday we awakened to a dark, rainy day so headed home along with many of the other units. Some of our Tampa people (mostly the logistics team) stayed. One guy is returning to LA/TX Monday with his trailer that he outfitted to fix and sharpen chain saws, and he's towing it with his motorhome. So Kings Avenue and Bell Shoals BC have put out an appeal for diapers and wipes and mops, etc. and he'll fill his motorhome with those and take them back to Golden Meadow before he goes to Houma or on into Texas, which is where he suspects they'll be sending him by then.Well, thought you'd be interested on hearing some of the things that go on.

Am attaching a website if you're interested in knowing more that the SBC is doing. Of course, there are thousands of other volunteers from the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army, Samaritan's Purse that are working, too. At the feeding unit each meal, there were lines of ARC trucks picking up food to be distributed all over that area. The SBC prepares 80% of the food that is distributed by the others. The SBC has the second largest force of trained workers (after the ARC) for disaster relief. It's an unbelievable operation.

Of course, there are, unfortunately, many who don't get the help, but there are certainly thousands out there who are attempting to provide it. Appreciate your prayers for the people going through this and for safety for the workers who are traveling, doing removal and cleanup. Even though some of these people have been through this before, it is still difficult. They are a resilient people and they help each other alot, but know the presence of others is a real blessing. As the pastor at GM told us during one of our devotion times, "you can send checks and that is a great help, but when you physically come here, that gives them hope". I did talk to people who told me they are done....they're leaving the area, but for many, they financially cannot think of relocating, and for many, whatever we think, this is their home. This SBC site will give you some pictures, but will send some of mine when Bill gets a chance to download them from my camera.

Hope this hasn't been too long to get through. Evelyn


Laci Strickland said...

Wow! I'm "out of the loop". lol. I didn't even know my own Grandma went! I need to have her add ME to the list!!!

The Nassars said...

I just want to say you have a very cool Grandma!!