By Philip Timothy, Managing Editor
WESTLAKE – For the newly constituted chainsaw unit, it was baptism by storm.
In September of 2005, the unit, which was only the third of its kind in Louisiana and hailed from the Carey Baptist Association, had been together for little over two months when Hurricane Katrina tore into southeast Louisiana.
Louisiana Disaster Relief Director Loy Seal sent them to hard-hit Covington and Roberts, La., where they spent several weeks clearing a number of downed trees. They had just returned home when Hurricane Rita took aim at southwest Louisiana.
“As I recall, we had only been home for several days when we were forced to evacuate because of Rita,” said Butch Guidry of Sulphur and a blue hat for Carey. “We went first to East Leesville [Baptist Church] but right before the storm hit decided to take our trailer and go to Auburn, Ala.”
With his family safely out of harm’s way, Guidry then watched and waited. Twelve hours after Rita made landfall, he, two of his son-in-laws and a friend returned home to begin the arduous task of assessing the damage and cleaning up.
“The devastation was bad,” Guidry recalled. “There were a lot of trees down on homes. The streets and roads were impassable. There was no power anywhere.”
In June, three months before Rita hit, the Carey Association had ordered two trailers for its disaster relief work. They arrived two weeks after Rita.
“After Florida was hit with those four hurricanes in one year,” said Guidry, “we saw the need for more units and equipment for those units. Loy [Seal] set aside $30,000 to purchase a pair of fully rigged out trailers at the cost of $15,000 each.”
The trailers were equipped with shelving, four chains saw of various sizes, pole saws, extra chains and bars for the saws, wheelbarrows and shovels for mud-out work, a generator for grinding or sharpening chain blades in case there was no power on site; a high pressure washer, logging tongs, tow chains, protective gear such as chaps, hard hats, face shields and ear plugs and a first-aid kit.
“When the trailers got here,” said Guidry, “we took everything out of them and divided the equipment and made three teams so they could work independent. We would go pick up our work orders and for the first three weeks we did disaster relief from dawn to dusk in 100 degree heat and that brutal humidity.”
Florida set up a number of units at First Baptist Church in Lake Charles. Tennessee set up a command center at Maplewood Baptist Church in Sulphur. Topsy Baptist Church and First Baptist Church Westlake also had units set up in their parking lots.
Individuals, such as the one headed up by close friend Jack Robinson, worked out of their homes. It didn’t take long for Guidry to hook up with Robinson [a part of the Carey Association DR team and a member of Bellview Baptist Church in Westlake].
Like Guidry, Robinson had evacuated ahead of the storm but returned shortly after the storm moved out of the area. The owner of Farm Service and RV’s Plus and co-owner of Sun Contracting, he went and got two heavy pieces of machinery — a backhoe and a front-end loader from his business to help move the fallen trees.
“Jack got two large tractors and he, his nephew [Damon Hardesty of First Baptist Church Westlake], city workers and volunteers began to clear the streets of tree limbs and fallen trees. They cleared most of the streets in Westlake and then helped us clear trees from houses. Those two pieces of machinery proved to be a huge help.
“Ultimately, Jack bought a skid steer and when he passed away almost three years ago, his wife Joanna gave it to us. We continue to use it for DR work today,” said Guidry.
With no power and a need for diesel and gasoline, Guidry’s wife and daughter, who were still in Auburn, Ala., loaded up three empty drums filled with fuel and brought them to the area.
“I am sure people gave them a lot of strange looks with those three barrels of fuel in the back of the truck,” Guidry chuckled.
The fuel, though, would prove to be a godsend as it kept the crews working, and the work seemed endless. At first, there were as many as 500 work orders a day and more than 5,000 that were on a waiting list.
“For a time, disaster relief stopped being a ministry and it became a job,” said Guidry. “There was just so much damage and devastation.
“As a resident, I, like many others, were a little disappointed that so much attention was focused on Katrina and not on Rita. It was quite upsetting because many kept looking for help from the federal and state government and it never came,” he said
Such was not the case with units from the SBC.
Help quickly began to pour into the area from other states – Alabama, Tennessee, Florida, Oklahoma, Maryland, Missouri, Arkansas, Illinois, and Texas. DR units were soon spread out across southwest Louisiana.
“To this day, I will always have a special place in my heart for the people from Tennessee and Alabama,” said Guidry. “The way they served was uplifting. They just had a heart for people.”
Alabama and Tennessee took over for Florida and stayed through the Thanksgiving weekend.
“We worked on the weekdays and the weekends … virtually every weekend … through Christmas,” said Guidry. “We would not finally exhaust all the work orders until after Easter – seven months after Rita slammed into the Louisiana coast.”
The Carey Baptist Association not only managed to survive its baptism by storm but it also learned some valuable lessons.
“I firmly believe disaster relief in this state grew exponentially,” said Guidry. “We were the third chainsaw unit in the state before Rita hit. Now we have between 45 and 50 units. Katrina and Rita were definitely a benchmark for disaster relief.
“Those two storms led to more, better training for our units,” Guidry continued. “We learned a lot and saw where we could do better. As a matter of fact, it led to our unit coming up with a unique tree removal invention.”
In 2007, Mark Robin of First Baptist Church in Moss Bluff took what had been learned and invented a jack that would enable the team to support the weight of a tree and to eliminate the weight of the tree from a house or object.
This “tree jack” enabled jobs to be performed that previously would have needed a lifting device such as a crane, back-hoe or track hoe.
After removing all the weight of the tree’s canopy to expose the portion of the tree that was bearing weight on the house, the jack could then be used to transfer the weight of the tree from the house to the jack, using a 6-ton bottle jack.
This allowed for the tree to be removed from the house without further damage and also created a safer environment for the tree to be removed.
Beauregard’s DR chainsaw unit got the second tree jack.
After seeing the interest from out-of-state DR chainsaw units in the tool when Carey’s DR chain saw unit responded in the aftermath of tornadoes in Geraldine, Ala., Robin shared the specs of his invention, and Robin’s brother-in-law offered to donate material for the Louisiana chain saw units that wanted one. Ten more did.
Robin and Ed Reed fabricated the material. Kelly Pump and Supply of Lake Charles drilled the holes for the piston portion of the jack and had the tree jacks blasted and primed.
“We took away a lot from that storm,” said Guidry. “But to sustain this ministry we need an infusion of new blood because a lot of our members are getting old. I tell potential prospects all the time there is nothing greater that they can do but serve.
“This ministry provides for all levels of society … from the poorest to the wealthiest,” said Guidry. “What would it have been like had we not had these units after Rita, I don’t even want to think about it.”