By Brian Blackwell, Message Staff Writer
Much like during Hurricane Katrina four weeks before, Southern Baptist Disaster Relief teams were a powerful force in the rebuilding process in areas affected by Rita.
Disaster relief crews from throughout the US came to southwest Louisiana to help. The first team from Louisiana to respond was Rolling Hills Ministry located in Ruston.
David Abernathy, director of Rolling Hills and blue hat – leader – of the unit recalls how they were serving with Katrina operations when they received the call to go to Leesville, after serving in Hammond for several weeks after Katrina. Fatigued from serving for more than a month in Hammond, volunteers from the unit responded within 48 hours after Rita made landfall.
When they arrived at First Baptist Church in Leesville, electricity was out and the crew did not have any food on hand. The unit had exhausted their supply during Katrina and was thus unprepared to respond to another storm of such great magnitude. Abernathy’s wife managed to find some Pop Tarts inside the church building to feed the crew.
The following day food did arrive and for the next three weeks the volunteers worked nearly 12 hour days. The humidity was so intense that three volunteers suffered from heat exhaustion, but that didn’t stop the rest of the crew from continuing their mission.
Like past assignments, the crew delivered food in a drive-through format. Cars would line up for blocks and pull up to the feeding unit trailer to receive their meals.
Abernathy said the churches in the area along with disaster relief teams really stepped up and worked together to give a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name.
“Cooperation sticks out in my mind,” Abernathy said. “People would stand up for hours to give people water and food. Church involvement really rose to the occasion.”
However, First Baptist Leesville was not the only church to serve as a host site for disaster relief operations. Many other churches from throughout the entire state served as staging areas and host sites.
By the time disaster relief crews had ceased operations with Katrina and Rita, volunteers had worked a total of 165,748 days, served 14,556,541 meals, completed 16,973 jobs, washed 25,826 loads of laundry, cared for 7,817 children, used 21,595 gallons of water and allowed for the use of 103,556 showers. Individual figures for each storm were not available.
Bill Holifield, pastor of First Baptist Church in Vinton at the time and now pastor of Colyell Baptist Church in Livingston, said the Katrina and Rita elevated the awareness of Louisiana Baptist Disaster Relief teams like never before. First Baptist Church served a distribution point for the American Red Cross and hosted disaster relief teams from Arkansas, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia, who worked at various points through Thanksgiving working on churches like First Baptist who sustained damage from Rita.
“There had been disaster relief responses previously but none like it had ever been up to that point,” said Holifield, whose church he was pastoring at the time received nearly $40,000 total and volunteer labor from Grand Avenue Baptist Church in Ft. Smith Ark., and Grace Community Baptist Church in Washingtonville, NY, to help make repairs to First Baptist Vinton that was damaged from the storm. “When I go back to Vinton for a visit, they still talk about those people in the yellow shirts and how they made a difference. The disaster relief teams gave a witness and helped spark a change in the heart of the people.”
Ten years after Rita, the number of Louisiana Baptist Disaster Relief crews has greatly increased a presence in the state and beyond. When the storm made landfall, Louisiana had less than 40 crews operating. Today, the state has 76 crews.
Louisiana Baptist Convention State Disaster Relief Director Gibbie McMillan, who was working with Texas Baptist Disaster Relief at the time, said Katrina and Rita both elevated the reputation of the denomination’s disaster relief presence.
“Southern Baptist Disaster Relief was one of the best kept secrets it seemed like because people would rave about what the Red Cross did,” he said. “But nobody knew that behind the scenes all the food the Red Cross was distributing was being prepared by Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, most of which were Texas Baptists and Southern Baptist of Texas Convention that were doing that in that area.”
Loy Seal, who was state disaster relief director at the time, said Rita and Katrina motivated Louisiana to establish more of its own disaster relief teams.
“Rita and Katrina made us realize just exactly what we needed to do,” Seal said. “Three days before Katrina in Louisiana we had finished our first shower trailer. We realized it wasn’t enough afterwards, so we got to work creating a number of additional shower, chainsaw, feeding and other units.”
Seal said managing teams responding to two different storms was a nearly 24-hour operation.
“We had to fight two wars on two fronts,” Seal said. “It was different when we had to go to second hurricane relief effort in one month. We never dreamed that would happen to us, even though it happened in Florida the year before.”