The Louisiana Flooding: On the Ground with Relief Agencies and How You Can Get Involved

Interview with Jamie Aten, Ross Johnson, David Melber and Jeff Nene by Ed Stetzer

This article was originally published in Christianity Today's The Exchange on August 23, 2016.

Image: LCMS Communications/Erik M. Lunsford

Image: LCMS Communications/Erik M. Lunsford

What's happening and how you can help.

According to the Red Cross, the Louisiana flooding is the worst U.S. disaster since Hurricane Sandy hit four years ago. In one area, more than 31 inches of rain fell in 15 hours. I recently co-authored a piece with Dr. Jamie Aten, founder and co-director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute and Disaster Ministry Conference at Wheaton College, in response to the recent flooding.

With hundreds of thousands of people impacted by the disaster, we wondered how the Church is responding. After a number of phone calls and email chats with the heads/spokespersons of disaster relief for nearly half a dozen denominations/organizations, I am convinced that the biblical command to help those impacted by tragedy both physically and spiritually is being followed with integrity, humility, and a spirit of unity.

Over the next few days I will be posting my interviews with the heads/spokespersons of disaster relief. I hope their answers will inspire you and fill you with hope that the spirit of Christ is alive and well during times of tragedy. Today we talk with Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, Send Relief (NAMB, Southern Baptist), Convoy of Hope (Assemblies of God and others), and Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College (Illinois) on what they are doing in terms of rescue and relief work and how you can get involved.

Tomorrow we will talk about why Christians are uniquely suited to aid in relief efforts and the role of faith.

Ed: How is your organization responding to the disaster in Louisiana right now?

Ross Johnson, Director of Disaster Response, Lutheran Church Missouri Synod:

Right now we're partnering with Lutheran congregations across Louisiana, particularly in Baton Rouge.

The first phase of our disaster response is to partner with local congregations that are going to be doing muck-out and dealing with immediate needs of people who have been affected by the flooding.

We're anticipating the first eight to ten weeks we're going to be bringing volunteer teams in. We already have volunteers who going to do the muck-out, tearing out the flooring and drywall. We're also giving out flood buckets and emergencies supplies. We have elders at our churches and congregational pastors who are doing spiritual care during the immediate phase.

We like to blend hands-on help along with spiritual care. I think that's one thing that makes a church-based response slightly different than government-based responses is we don't only help out with temporal needs, but we also help out with spiritual needs.

We find that oftentimes when somebody has gone through a traumatic event in their life and has enormous economic loss or has been displaced, that they also need spiritual care. We have elders and spiritual care leaders within our congregation that are visiting as well as mucking-out homes.

David Melber, Vice President, Send Relief (North American Mission Board):

Right now we are doing a lot of assessing. The expanse of the flooding has impacted somewhere near 100,000 homes, and the estimates are running right now between 250,000 and 350,000 people. It is a disaster of epic proportions in the fact that so many of the people who had their homes flooded were outside a flood zone and did not have flood insurance. I'm sure it will take years to repair this community.

Our teams do several primary things. First, we are known for doing much of the feeding. We have a partnership through Southern Baptist Disaster Relief with the American Red Cross where they provide food and delivery, but Southern Baptist volunteers from states all over are actually cooking the food now. We were at one location this morning. They'll serve in excess of 10,000 meals just today. We have five different feeding sites that are currently dealing with this disaster.

We also have Southern Baptist Disaster Relief volunteers who come in and do home assessments, where they're going door-to-door in these flooded areas. They do an assessment and write up a work order of what needs to be done.

We then have teams that will come and do the, what's called, ‘mud-out,’ where they remove any of the debris and contaminants in there and remove drywall up to wherever the appropriate flood area is. We then put a treatment in these homes that inhibits mold growth. Not only do we have the feeding, the mud-out, and the assessments, but perhaps most importantly, we have a lot of chaplains here that will be ministering to the people who have lost everything and are dealing with the effects of the disaster.

They're here to provide the emotional and spiritual support, and share the gospel with many people.

Jeff Nene, National Spokesperson, Convoy of Hope:

Our disaster team found out about the flooding literally while it was happening, and so they mobilized immediately. We got a couple trucks sent down with food, water, and emergency supplies, and deployed one of our quick response teams. They set up in a local church parking lot on the south side of Baton Rouge and have been supplying churches with food, water, emergency supplies, cleaning supplies, etc.

To date, we've gotten a little over 30 tractor trailer loads of product into that area. The really cool thing is doing the bulk of that distribution with local churches.

People think of us as being a part of the Assemblies of God and we do work a lot with them. We have a memorandum of understanding with the Assemblies, but we also have that with several other denominations. We're working very closely with Vineyard churches, Open Door churches, churches of all different denominations.

In fact, many of our churches that we're teamed up with in the Baton Rouge area are from other denominations or non-denominational churches.

We have a great partnership with the local church because eventually we're going to go home. When we send in a team, we send in anywhere from two to five of our full-time staff members, and then we'll also put together some of our full-time volunteers and start working with the local churches to amass a volunteer base that can get in there and really do the hands-on work with the people.

Jamie Aten, Founder & Director, Humanitarian Disaster Institute:

The Humanitarian Disaster Institute is partnering with Bethany Church (in Baton Rouge) to offer disaster spiritual and emotional care training August 24-25 from 6:00-9:00 pm (same training; two different evenings). The training is free but we would ask people to register at www.bethany.com to help us with planning. It will take place at Bethany Church, South Baton Rouge Campus, 1107 Honore Lane, Baton Rouge, LA.

HDI will also be deploying with a team in early September to conduct research to assess the impact of the flooding on people’s spiritual and emotional lives. Our hope is that this research will help church and community leaders better understand the needs of those affected.

We will also be providing additional disaster spiritual and emotional care training. We will use our findings to develop new church and community resources to help those impacted in Louisiana and future disasters. If readers from the flood area are interested in participating in one of our research studies or training sessions, please email hdi.office@wheaton.eduwith the subject line: La Research & Training.

Another way we are helping is by turning our research into tools, resources, and articles to help churches learn how to navigate the disaster recovery process as well as attend to survivors’ disaster mental health needs. Some of the free resources readers can download include tip sheets, manuals, booklets, and writings.

Ed: How can Christians help those affected by this crisis?

Johnson: We have three things that the congregations in the Baton Rouge area are asking for. The first one is prayer support. The second one is financial donations, and thirdly, hands-on volunteers. We have an intake process that through one of the websites of our partners, we're taking in volunteers and encouraging people to volunteer with doing hands-on labor. This is going to be needed for months to come. The first phase is going to be muck-out.

Then we're going to be coming back and replacing drywall and flooring and things like that. Volunteer hands-on labor is going to be needed for the foreseeable months to come. We are actively looking for volunteers.

We do have a program in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, we call it LERT, Lutheran Early Response Teams. This is a one-day training that we give to members of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod so that they are prepared and equipped before a disaster happens—what to do, what not to do, and why we do it as Christians.

We do have training, but even if they don't have that training, they're going to be doing a crash course. We're setting up a short-term volunteer camp in Baton Rouge. People who want to volunteer can contact us through our website: Lcms.org/disaster. It'll have links to how they can give, pray, or volunteer.

Melber: I met a gentleman here from California this morning. We've got them from California to Virginia, and many states in between. We will have teams slotted that will come in and fulfill all of the areas we need help with. They will be here on an ongoing basis for the next several months. That'll transition into what we call the ‘long-term rebuild,’ where we provide the labor for the people who have had their homes flooded and do not have flood insurance if they can get the materials.

You have people show up, like I said, from California to Virginia and states in between, who are just arriving here to help. They're sleeping on cots and on the floors in gyms. They're here to serve meals, do assessments, do mud out, and be chaplains sharing the hope of Christ with the people they're ministering to. It's a great picture of the Church as a whole coming together to meet needs in this community.

Above all else, please just pray for what's going on here. Pray for those who have been impacted. Pray for the volunteers who are coming. There are financial needs that are going to go well beyond what this state can handle. There are many ways that you can be involved in what's going on here. Pray, you can give, and there's going to be many opportunities in these coming months to get involved in what the Lord's doing here in this community.

Nene: The best way to get involved is to do two things. First, you can go to our website and make a secure online donation that is earmarked for the disaster. Second, if you want to volunteer, we're trying to work with volunteers or self-sustained teams in that area. If you want to work with us, you can send an email to volunteer@convoyofhope.org. Or if you live in that area, you can get in touch with some of the churches down there that we're supplying and work with that church. What we're trying to do is enable the local churches to work in their communities. We feel that's the best long-term solution that we can help provide.

I want to also encourage everyone to pray and to do something. The media has been a little absent in this disaster. I think things like the Presidential race and the Olympics have focused our attention elsewhere, but people are calling this the most significant disaster since Super Storm Sandy.

I just came back from Louisiana. When you see the devastation, when you see neighborhood after neighborhood after neighborhood that's been impacted and the piles of trash that just line the streets in these neighborhoods as people are beginning to clean out their homes, it tears your heart out because these are people

Aten: For churches responding to this latest flood, I’d encourage them to start with what they already do well and ‘pivot’ their ministries to focus on the needs of disaster survivors. One of the keys of starting a successful disaster ministry is to build on your congregation’s strengths and leverage the capacity of your congregation’s spiritual gifts.

Also, be sure you respond with your congregation’s unique calling in mind. For example, if your church has a strong children’s ministry, then launch your relief efforts by helping kids. If you church has an effective shelter ministry for the homeless, then start there. The more congruent your disaster relief efforts are with your overall ministry, the more likely it will succeed.

You should also reach out to other groups in your community to collaborate. This might include other churches, Christian relief organizations, local emergency management, public health, first responders, and law enforcement. Last, you might consider getting involved in your state’s voluntary organizations that have active disaster groups if they are available.

Communities need their churches to not just offer physical help, but also need hope, meaning, and spiritual care as well.

Tomorrow we will continue with Part Two of this series.