Paying it forward: Victims help victims
LaPLACE, La. – For about 8,000 residents of this town just west of New Orleans, the arrival of Hurricane Isaac brought a very different future than they might ever have envisioned.
In a matter of hours, homes, possessions, businesses, schools and houses of worship were washed away in as much as four feet of water.
Suddenly, the people of LaPlace needed help — so much help that they didn’t know how to begin to ask.
Enter Christians from communities and congregations that have endured other catastrophic disasters, such as the deadly 2011 tornado outbreak in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
In the weeks since the flooding subsided, dozens of former victims have “paid forward” the assistance they received — packing up cleaning supplies, household items and other essentials and making the trek to help fellow Christians and other neighbors in need.
“They’ve lost everything from sentimental things to all their clothes to their bed,” said William Orman, a member of the Central Church of Christ in Tuscaloosa and sophomore at the University of Alabama. “You can’t even quantify how much they’ve lost in the grand total of everything.”
Orman and fellow student Maria Holland spent a day recently helping Diedre and Emmett Collins gut their home and start the rebuilding process.
Tearing out walls, hauling ruined furniture outside and ripping out flooring was backbreaking work. Deidre Collins, a member of the LaPlace Church of Christ, said she was touched by the gift — and especially the givers.
“It brings a relief to you to know that you don’t have to do all this by yourself,” she said. “It makes your beginning a lot sooner. Once all this is behind you, you can begin again. That’s the hardest part.”
The family is one of eight left homeless in the 45-member congregation by the Category 1 storm that struck Aug. 28 and the ensuing flooding of nearby Lakes Pontchartrain and Maurepas.
Two church families didn’t have flood insurance, and the insured faced deductibles ranging from $6,000 to $7,000. Though they rejoice that no one from the congregation was injured, LaPlace church members say it will take years to recover from the storm.
Central members know firsthand about ongoing rebuilding and recovery. Their church building in Tuscaloosa was destroyed on April 27, 2011, by an EF-4 tornado. Fifty-three people throughout the community died on a day that saw 62 tornadoes claim more than 250 lives throughout Alabama and the South.
The Alabama congregation received help from across the country. Christians sent funds and provided food, supplies and manpower to help repair and rebuild homes and later the church building itself.
Mike Baumgartner of the Disaster Assistance Mission — a feeding ministry overseen by the Lake Jackson Church of Christ in Texas — helped the Central church prepare more than 40,000 meals and coordinate volunteers for five months following the disaster.
Baumgartner now is stationed in LaPlace. He said a flooding disaster is different than the aftermath of a tornado.
“Floods are difficult because you have to live and work in your house while you rebuild it,” Baumgartner said.
Members of the Carrollton Avenue Church of Christ in New Orleans also assisted residents in nearby LaPlace.
In the months and years following Katrina’s destruction in August 2005, the inner-city Carrollton Avenue members helped rebuild homes and refurbish the flood-damaged church building, not to mention the congregation itself, since many people evacuated and did not return to New Orleans.
Justin Miller, another volunteer in LaPlace, was one of six college students who survived the deadly Tuscaloosa tornado in a utility closet inside Central’s church building.
While he experienced his own losses, he made it a priority to reach out and help others in the weeks following the tornado. He said he continues to put the lessons he learned from that experience into practice and spent two days recently lending a hand to the nation’s most recent hurricane victims.
“It has taught me how to serve and to consider what happens when a natural disaster hits,” Miller said. “It’s so easy to not think about the people homeless and people suffering because you’re not suffering.
“But as you reach out and help more and more people, you realize how devastating these disasters are,” he added, “and it makes you more conscious about the magnitude of a natural disaster.”
The LaPlace Church of Christ and Disaster Assistance Mission still need volunteers, say church leaders and disaster relief coordinators. Not only do the donations and labor help rebuild, the spirit that prompts the action uplifts the community, said Bryan Cook, a member of the LaPlace church.
“I think more from the emotional standpoint, it has more of an impact to see people coming to help out and support in a time of need,” Cook said. “From a spiritual need, it helps out quite a bit there as well.”
FOR INFORMATION on how to help, see the LaPlace church website at www.laplacechurchofchrist.com or the Disaster Assistance Mission website at www.disasterassistancecoc.com. To see a video of the Central volunteers working in LaPlace, go to www.christian chronicle.org/blog and search for “pay it forward.”