By Billy Robinson and Jessica Brodie
PONCHATOULA, La.—Mangled metal. Newly homeless families. Widespread power and water outages. And in the aftermath, South Carolina stepped up to help.
Hurricane Ida ripped through the northern Gulf Coast Aug. 29, shredding trees and homes and claiming dozens of lives before barreling north with devastating tornadoes and catastrophic flooding. The second most damaging and intense storm in Louisiana history behind Hurricane Katrina, Ida struck on the 16th anniversary of Katrina, bringing maximum sustained winds of 150 mph.
A week later, early disaster response teams deployed from South Carolina to Ponchatoula, Louisiana, and Pass Christian, Mississippi, ultimately assisting with work at 33 homes doing heavy chainsaw, machinery and tarp work.
“We had a very productive disaster response mission,” said Billy Robinson, coordinator of the South Carolina United Methodist Volunteers in Mission Early Response Team, calling what they encountered “unprecedented destruction and chaos.”
Robinson said the 13-person team responded from Sept. 6-11 with many chainsaws and supplies, including a fully equipped disaster response trailer, a skid steer and a mini excavator.
“We had boots on the ground hard at work three days after receiving the call for dire help,” Robinson said. “We touched many lives, while our lives were also touched with true tears of joy and high, loving emotions.”
Survivors were devastated physically, mentally and financially, he said, and many lost everything they owned. The vast majority were without electricity, running water, ice and other bare essentials. Some had generators, but the fuel supply was limited. On top of that, the late-summer weather was hot and muggy with little relief at night.
“We moved everything from limbs, mangled metal and furniture to huge trees while making egress to homes and removing trees and debris off of homes,” Robinson said.
Thankfully, he said, the machinery and its operators made jobs that would have taken days turn into hours. They also provided high-quality tarps on their roofing/tarping jobs preventing further damage. The tarps the South Carolina team uses can last as long as a year, which is important because roofers and carpenters can be hard to come by in the aftermath of such a widespread disaster, Robinson said.
In addition to Robinson, responding from South Carolina were the Rev. Mike Evans of Edgefield, the Rev. Fred Buchanan of Orangeburg, the 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 and Jerry Pullen of James Island. Armstrong’s brother Nathan also joined to help from Texas.
All worked in conjunction with other United Methodist ERTs from Louisiana, Missouri, Arkansas, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Texas and Mississippi. Each team shared food, resources and personnel.
First UMC of Ponchatoula hosted the South Carolina team, providing shelter, food, showers and other support. First UMC also became a point of distribution in the community for water, ice, flood buckets, tarps, health kits and other essential items.
Lifting praises to God
As always, Robinson said, their highest priorities are the survivors and everyone God put into their path, from other volunteers and emergency workers to community personnel.
While the physical task of making their homes safe, sanitary and secure are important, the people themselves mean the most.
“We listen to them, cry with them, pray with them, help them in every way we can, then leave them with glimpses of God’s love through Scripture, prayer, actions and gestures of pure Christian love,” Robinson said.
At one point, the whole town pitched in to help an elderly blind woman. Another woman they encountered was nicknamed “Annie Oakley” because she wore a pistol on her side to protect herself and her possessions from would-be thieves.
On another day, part of their group had the honor of helping John Schneider, of “The Dukes of Hazzard” fame, cut and remove two dangerous trees at his camp that is often used for children’s ministries.
But Robinson said the most heartwarming moments are those when tightly coiled emotions break free. One day, the South Carolina team found themselves working at the home of an elderly widow named Clara Russell, whose home was mostly intact except for two walls and a rear section of her roof where a huge oak had fallen onto it.
The team 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. Then they put a tarp over the holes. Totally exhausted, they lay in the shade after they finished, when suddenly the homeowner drove up.
“She broke down crying when she found out that we were United Methodists 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 Rev. Mike Evans’ prayer for her and the community.”
Robinson said many people get taken advantage of by roofers and tree companies looking to make big profits in the aftermath of disasters. Sometimes, people are charged astronomical prices— from $6,000 to $62,000—to remove trees from their home and property, plus put on tarps.
“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,” Robinson said.
“When people find out that our services and ministry are free, they always start immediately giving thanks and praise to God.”
If you are interested in being a part of the South Carolina UMVIM ERT program, your help is welcome. All ERTs must go through training and a background check. Two trainings are scheduled for October: one Oct. 9 at Aldersgate UMC, Greenville, and one Oct. 20 at St. Andrew By-the-Sea UMC, Hilton Head.
For more information, visit www.umcsc.org/disaster-response.