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Louisiana: three hurricanes, a tropical storm and a pandemic

Pastors say, ‘If you need help, holler; if you don’t need help — help others’

by Tammy Warren and Darla Carter | Presbyterian News Service

Hurricane Laura and Hurricane Delta caused extensive damage to at least four churches in the Presbytery of South Louisiana, including Westminster Presbyterian Church of Sulphur, shown here. (Photo by Erich Mansell)

LOUISVILLE — Hurricane Delta clobbered southwest Louisiana on Oct. 9, making landfall just 13 miles east of where Hurricane Laura came ashore as a strong Category 4 storm just six weeks earlier. And, between these two direct hits, Hurricane Sally, a Category 2 storm with 105 mile-per-hour winds, dumped double-digit rainfall totals from Gulf Shores, Alabama, to Pensacola, Florida. Small, slow-moving Tropical Storm Beta caused severe flooding along the Texas and Louisiana coastlines.

Christina Drake, disaster recovery coordinator for the Presbytery of South Louisiana, said this “parade of hurricanes, like a Mardi Gras parade only with hurricanes,” has presented even more challenges than the “storm with no name” in 2016, which caused extreme flooding and devastation in southern Louisiana.

Christy Handcock Dempsey, associate pastor at the Presbyterian Church of the Cross in Omaha, Nebraska, stands beside some of the 9,000 pounds of buckets, hygiene kits and school kits assembled for hurricane relief in Louisiana by First Presbyterian Church of Omaha, Presbyterian Church of the Cross, Hickman Presbyterian Church, Westminster United Presbyterian of Minden and Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church of Lincoln. (Contributed photo)

“In the past, we have relied on people from outside the area,” Drake said. “COVID has forced us to really implore local congregations to step up to help.” Drake is working part-time and remotely from Pennsylvania with the help of two volunteers in Louisiana. She has watched the presbytery come together to engage congregations in the response effort and is inspired by pastors and other volunteers. They remind her of her first experience with disaster work after Hurricane Katrina. “I came for one AmeriCorps term and stayed almost 10 years,” she said.

Charlene, a member of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Sulphur, Louisiana, lost her roof after Hurricane Laura and, just two days after it was replaced, she lost it again to Hurricane Delta.

“That’s a hardship,” said Westminster co-pastor Erich Mansell. “You get it done, hit the last nail. You pray and then it’s gone.” The church itself was severely damaged by Hurricane Laura and further damaged by Hurricane Delta. Although the church property and structures are insured and state law allows multiple storms to count toward the same deductible during the calendar year, changes implemented after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 have resulted in the additional hardship of having a high deductible, based on a percentage of the value of the affected property, typically 2% to 5%. This means a deductible can be six figures before insurance kicks in.

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance has deployed a virtual disaster response team to assist the Presbytery of South Louisiana in the aftermath of Hurricanes Laura and Delta. PDA has also awarded church damage grants to four churches in the presbytery experiencing the most significant damage during this “very impactful” hurricane season: First Presbyterian Church of DeRidder, First Presbyterian Church of Lake Charles, St. Andrew Presbyterian Church of Lake Charles and Westminster Presbyterian Church of Sulphur. There was also damage from Hurricane Laura in the Presbytery of the Pines, with offices in Ruston, Louisiana, about 70 miles east of Shreveport.

Supplies from Houston and southeast Texas were headed for the hurricane relief distribution center in the fellowship hall of Westminster Presbyterian in Sulphur, Louisiana. Many in Houston are paying it forward because others helped them after Hurricane Harvey. (Contributed photo)

“It’s been amazing how people have responded in very practical ways in the midst of all that is happening in our country,” said the Rev. James Kirk, PDA’s associate for disaster response in the U.S. “Individuals and congregations have stepped forward to offer their support through PDA or directly to the impacted communities.” Since recovery will take multiple years, Kirk said, PDA encourages people to continue to support response in impacted communities long-term.

“Our church was pretty well totaled in Laura,” said Nanette Cagney, a lawyer by trade and a commissioned lay pastor of St. Andrew Presbyterian Church of Lake Charles, a more than 60-year-old congregation of about 100 members. “We have three main buildings: the sanctuary, the fellowship hall and the administration building. All three need new roofs. Although the administration building is usable, only one room of the fellowship hall is. We lost walls, we lost roofs, we lost windows — the sanctuary is not useable.

“We had everything tarped, we had things secured, we had plywood put up where the walls were missing,” Cagney said, describing Delta’s arrival with rain and wind that blew tarps off, causing even more water damage in the facility. “There are so many complications, it’s just one thing after another,” she said, “and then you’ve got COVID on top of that.”

St. Andrew Presbyterian has been meeting virtually since March, which Cagney sees as an upside that did not force a sudden move to online worship and administration of the church, which would have been a “rude awakening,” she said. Another upside, she said, is the incredible response St. Andrew has received from PDA and from different churches around the country — so generous, in fact, that the church has been able to reach out and begin to build relationships with some African American churches in town, sharing supplies and gift cards received to help with their repair and rebuilding efforts.

“One of the churches that just touches my heart so much is First Presbyterian Church of Lynn Haven, Florida, which got wiped out two years ago by Hurricane Michael. The congregation is still rebuilding. They have issues of their own.” Yet, she said, First Presbyterian of Lynn Haven, led by the Rev. Lisa Wilson Martin, sent a box full of gift cards to help the St. Andrew congregation. “I mean, that’s part of being a connectional church … that just stops you in your tracks,” Cagney said.

Martin wrote on the First Presbyterian-Lynn Haven website that in their “adopting” St. Andrew, gift cards could provide immediate assistance, and that, hopefully, a work group will be able to go and help in person when the way is clear.

“Just as churches were in it for the long haul with us, following the devastation of Hurricane Michael,” Martin wrote, “we are committed to being there for the people of St. Andrew in their time of need.”

Pastors Jerry Egbert, vice-moderator of the Presbytery of South Louisiana Council, and Leslie Ferrell Mansell with a few of the 400 “Hug-a-Bears,” made by Alice Hondzinski and the Presbyterian Women from Broadmoor Presbyterian Church in Baton Rouge. The prayer bears are going to children in Sulphur, DeRidder and Lake Charles as part of hurricane relief efforts. (Contributed photo)

Erich and Leslie Mansell, co-pastors of Westminster Presbyterian of Sulphur, “the little church that can and does,” said they continue to look for joyous moments in the aftermath of the “panduricanes.” A squirrel almost attended worship on Oct. 11, which was held in the sanctuary sans electricity. Westminster’s fellowship hall has become a hurricane relief distribution center within the presbytery, providing tarps, cleaning supplies and paper products, diapers and wipes, hygiene products and nonperishable food. They’ve also been able to provide hot meals for hundreds of people as everyone pitches in to support one another and persevere in recovery efforts during the pandemic. See some of the damage to Westminster Presbyterian, at the same time the pastors see it, outside here and inside here.

The other damaged churches also have served as distribution sites to help their communities, even as they are themselves remain in need of assistance.

The Atlantic hurricane season, which runs from June 1 through Nov. 30, has been record-breaking in 2020, with the 26th named storm strengthening from Tropical Storm Epsilon to Hurricane Epsilon the evening of Oct. 20. Forecasters expect Epsilon to generate dangerous surf and rip currents along the coasts of Bermuda, the Bahamas, the Greater Antilles and the Leeward Islands. These conditions are expected to spread to portions of the East Coast of the U.S. and Atlantic Canada throughout the weekend, according to the National Hurricane Center.

To support PDA’s hurricane response, designate gifts to DR000194.

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