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Associated Press/Photo by Eric Gay

Cleaning up the mess

Disaster | Gulf Coast storm survivors have a different idea of devastation since Hurricane Katrina

Issue: "Northern light," Sept. 20, 2008

Even before Hurricane Gustav rolled over parts of Cajun country, Christian aid groups were rolling to the rescue. A convoy of two disaster relief trucks, plus other support vehicles, departed Samaritan's Purse headquarters in North Carolina for Louisiana on Sept. 1. Samaritan's Purse president Franklin Graham prayed with the group before they left, saying, "Be the hands and feet of Jesus."

The Salvation Army, North American Mission Board, and Operation Blessing International were among the faith-based groups that pre-staged aid supplies and volunteers in counties Gustav threatened.

Nearly 2 million people fled the Louisiana coast in advance of Gustav, including about 95 percent of New Orleans' residents. Though storm damage paled in comparison to Katrina, the apocalyptic storm that ravaged the state in 2005, Gov. Bobby Jindal still declared Gustav "a very, very serious storm that's caused major damage in our state."

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The storm tumbled trees, sheered off roofs, shut down some water and sewage systems, and knocked out power to more than 1.4 million residents. Also, Gustav destroyed as much as half of Louisiana's $600 million annual sugar cane crop, according to the state's agriculture and forestry department.

On Sept. 2, President Bush declared 34 counties eligible for federal disaster assistance. The same day, Samaritan's Purse arrived in Baton Rouge and rural Donaldsonville, La., with two "disaster-relief units," specially built rolling command centers outfitted to help residents repair storm damage. Baton Rouge shelters had taken in about 7,000 evacuees, said Luther Harrison of Samaritan's Purse.

Tree damage is a significant problem in the area. That may not sound like much. But it is for some folks, Harrison said, such as the elderly, or
people without chainsaws and the know-how to perform the skilled and sometimes dangerous work of felling unsafe trees.

"That's where the Christian churches can help," Harrison said. "You come alongside people, help them clean up the mess, and it gives them a fresh outlook on life."

Samaritan's Purse relief workers on Sept. 2 began assessing damage and meeting with local officials and church leaders. "It's all about building relationships and connecting storm victims with resources that are already in the area," Harrison said. "We're going to pack up one day and leave. We want people to be able to get help, both materially and spiritually, after we're gone."

World Vision's relief teams on Sept. 1 began delivering aid to evacuees in Dallas and Jackson, Miss. "On the Dallas side, our focus has been helping volunteers from local churches connect with evacuees," said World Vision's Rachel Wolff. "In Jackson, there are folks who came in who did have significant needs. We found that they tended to be lower-income families. The greatest need has been baby items-formula, diapers, clothing."

The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency reported that at least 20 people were rescued from flood waters as Gustav swept through. About 14,500 people took refuge in shelters across the state, with thousands more checking into hotels. On Sept. 3, charter buses began taking some evacuees home. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour has asked President Bush to declare 16 counties federal disaster areas.

In Bay St. Louis, Lagniappe Presbyterian Church opened its doors to 130 National Guard soldiers, part of a force of thousands of military personnel and police deployed to guard evacuees' homes and businesses during their absence. Also a certified Red Cross shelter, the church dispatched people to assess damage in the area, which Pastor Jean Larroux called "limited," such as missing roof shingles and minor flooding.

That's in stark contrast to the devastation left in Hurricane Katrina's wake three years ago. After that storm, 80 percent of Bay St. Louis' housing was uninhabitable, as was every government building. "When I drove down the street five days after Katrina, I was driving past pickup trucks with bodies hanging out of the back," said Larroux, whose aunt and uncle drowned in the storm. "There were bodies hanging in the trees."

Hurricane Gustav, a comparative kitten, nevertheless tore the scabs off the psychological wounds Katrina inflicted on Bay St. Louis residents. "Hurricanes and storms to this community right now are incredibly demoralizing," Larroux said.

For example, some area families had, only the week before Gustav, finished repairing Katrina's damage. On Sept. 2, they came home to two feet of flood-water in their homes.

"That's not enough to destroy your house," Larroux said. "But at this point, it's just about enough to make you want to throw up your hands and walk away."

Katrina also subtly twisted the community's attitude about what constitutes storm damage.

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