The Louisiana Flood of 2016
Monday, August 22, 2016
This story rates right up there with the miracle of the fishes and the loaves of bread. A huge chunk of southwest Louisiana was underwater after a flood of biblical proportions inundated a swath of the state from Baton Rouge to Lafayette. Over 146,000 homes were damaged or ruined.
Much of the state was paralyzed, the damage incomprehensible, the situation dire. Most of the homes affected had never flooded before, were not even in flood zones and had no flood insurance. The Red Cross, FEMA and other agencies offered assistance but were overwhelmed with the sheer volume of needs for food, clothing, and shelter.
After about a week, water receded from most homes around Lafayette, Louisiana. Hundreds needed to be gutted of everything that had contact with water - floors, walls, cabinets, you name it. If left in place, within about two weeks, black mold would grow and the house would need special permits and workers wearing HAZMAT suits to enter. Time was of the essence.
Pastor Jacob Aranza of the non-denominational Our Savior’s Church in Lafayette, Louisiana got busy. He made a tour of the area and was stunned by the devastation. His flock and their neighbors needed help and he was determined to provide it. The man thinks big and is a savvy user of social media. He made a pitch to the members of his church, put it up on Vimeo. The name and spirit of Jesus was invoked, non-denominational doesn’t mean Jesus is left out. But neither was the spirit of southwest Louisiana, renowned for the ethic of helping neighbors whenever they need it. Hundreds of volunteers signed up.
Pastor Jacob scoured the area for shovels, wheel barrows, hand and power tools, trash bags, masks, work gloves, buckets from every supply store that was open. Within days, instead of a utility closet or two filled with mops and buckets and vacuum cleaners, the church owned enough inventory to remind me of an aisle in Home Depot.
This kind of work is not part of any church’s outreach program. Laying out a day’s work for work crews required near military precision. Crew chiefs were given a spread sheet for the day’s work: location of home, description of work to be done, names and phone numbers of owners. Crews were led by one or two skilled leaders and eight or nine inspired grunt laborers. People who didn’t know each other got the hang of what to look for, divided up jobs then removed soggy insulation and drywall and debris efficiently. This was bible study of the help-thy-neighbor-type in action.
Let me back up a minute. I’ve been visiting the Lafayette area since my first trip there in 2008. I know first hand about their legendary friendliness that welcomes strangers who appreciate their culture. I now have friends there who welcome me every time I visit. I needed to show up and help and somehow found a link to Our Savior’s Church.
Working with a faith-based group is another matter. A lapsed Catholic, the only time I’m in church is for weddings and funerals. I’ve listened to enough radio and TV evangelical programs to know that I wouldn’t be a great fit if every two minutes, someone was shouting “Praise Jesus!” Or asking me about my religious convictions and looking at me with pity at best and disapproval at worst when they discover I’m a modern day heathen.
That changed the first minute Pastor Jacob Aranza introduced himself to me as I reported for volunteer work at 9 AM on Monday, August 22 at Our Savior’s Church in Lafayette. “Where are you from? How is it you want to volunteer?” he asked as about sixty volunteers filled the lobby of the church.
Ten minutes later, the man gave us what amounted to be a spiritual pep talk on civic engagement. He filled in a picture of the kinds of people we would be helping, citing demographics, range of disposable incomes, the fact that most had no flood insurance, no resources to take on flood repairs, that most contractors had either been flooded themselves or were flooded with work, and that for most, we volunteers and this church are the first opportunity they have had to get help and relief from the flood.
By the time he got to exhorting us to be “the hands and feet of Jesus” I was sold on the mission and its intent. Frankly, I was astonished. By sheer luck, I was in the midst of an extraordinarily socially conscious church… a faith-based church that defied easy classification. Dogma was being trumped by civic duty.
Pastor Jacob made sure each crew had request forms to hand to people who needed help. “We’ve already gutted or cleaned up over 200 homes,” he said. By the end of the week, that number would increase to over 400.
A member of the church who was impressed by the results of his pastor’s mission donated $100,000.
“Buy whatever you need to keep helping these people,” he said. Pastor Jacob leveraged that by purchasing every de-humidifier and industrial box fan he could find. Impressed with the practical use of dough and growing scope of the mission, the same member donated another fifty grand. For the rest of the week, our work crews left a de-humidifier and huge box fan in every house we worked in, essential to dry out the premises and prevent mold from forming. Never heard a word about a charge for any of it.
Monday morning, before we dispersed into small work groups, Pastor Jacob asked us to join hands then delivered a moving prayer acknowledging what we are doing and the people for whom we are doing it. He finished with a sentiment other pastors and crew leaders echoed at the end of every day’s work for the rest of the week: that our lives would be spiritually nourished for giving our time and energy into this humanitarian volunteer work. Oh, yes.
Other than the videos on the church’s web site, Pastor Jacob kept a low profile, well under local radar. As far as he was concerned, the actions spoke for themselves. His flood relief update vimeo on August 24 illustrated how his flock responded to the challenge.
I never felt better while working so hard in my life. I was doing something that was important to me, felt good about it, my church-going co-workers felt good about it, and for all I know, Jesus was pretty proud about us being his hands and feet, too.
A member of Our Savior's Church donated $150,000 that paid for de-humidifiers and huge box fans, critical for drying out homes after they'd been gutted.
The last time volunteers will sit down all day; crew chiefs and crews review the spread sheets that identify locations of homes and what needs to be done in each.