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Retired deacon shares mission experience in Louisiana

09-03-2016

Natural disasters bring troubling times. Victims often face injuries, property damage and grief. Roads close. Schools and businesses do, too. People feel trapped. They search for necessities such as clean water, clothing, shelter and food.

As one Louisiana man who lost his home to the recent flood said, “We were straight up survival mode.” 

That ‘survival mode’ brings out those who serve. It begs for the love and compassion that Catholics are called to have for neighbors.

After hearing about the flooding that affected Louisiana in August, Deacon Bob Bridwell, from St. Stephen the First Martyr Church in Sanford, felt compelled to volunteer. He wanted to pack his bag and head for the region where he once earned a graduate degree from Louisiana State University.

Deacon Bob reached out to Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Raleigh to enquire about available opportunities for him to travel to the area as an independent volunteer. Through coordination between Catholic Charities USA and Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Raton Rogue, an opportunity was found.

During the next two weeks, Deacon Bob will share pictures and reflections from his experience. Please keep him in your thoughts and prayers as he enacts the Corporal Works of Mercy.

Getting to know Deacon Bob, in his words …

I’m a deacon and a retired city planner.  For several years following Hurricane Floyd, I was responsible for managing $82 million in HMGP grant funds from FEMA and NC supplemental funds.  During that time I was a certified flood recovery manager. 

I know the misery of flood recovery and how desperate people can become.

Sunday, August 28

THE FLIGHT - I left Sanford on my journey to Baton Rouge with the intent to be of some help to people suffering from the epic floods in southwestern Louisiana. It was a beautiful day and the flight was uneventful until we approached Baton Rouge. The plane bounced through a bank of thunder clouds in what I thought was our final approach. Coming through the clouds the plane switched back to the east and crossed the mighty Mississippi River. I had been to Baton Rouge before so I knew we had turned east away from the airport.

It was 5:30 p.m. and we were expected to land at 5:56 p.m. The next two hours were spent crisscrossing the river, touring the state capital, the LSU campus and the Louisiana flatlands that reminded me a little of eastern NC. But not landing. The pilot finally addressed us saying that a severe thunderstorm had settled over the Baton Rouge airport. This wouldn’t have been so notable except for the irony of arriving to do flood control work. So, we were diverted to New Orleans because we were low on fuel.

When the plane parked on the tarmac to refuel the crew decided to “crack the door” to the plane. I guess they thought we might want some fresh air. There is no fresh air in Louisiana in August. The plane got warm and muggy. Trying to lighten the mood I commented that they were going to let the flies in. But the lady in the seat ahead of me started fretting about mosquitoes and about something called the Zika virus. It didn’t help the mood. They finally closed the door, ordered everyone to return seats to upright positions, and off we flew to Baton Rouge. We landed at 8:30 p.m., roughly two and a half hours late.

Monday, August 29

BATON ROUGE AND ASCENSION PARISH - After consuming copious amounts of that nectar called community coffee, the Catholic Charities workers were given an orientation by the staff of Louisiana Catholic Charities. We were told that the flood event began on August 14th and that search and rescue continued until August 22nd, a short week ago. Ten rivers had exceeded their historic flood stages, caskets were floating in the waters and Interstate 10 was closed for 90 miles, from Lafayette to Lake Charles. Some motorists were stranded on the interstate up to forty hours. Conservative estimates (estimates that someone took the time to report) are that 40,000 people were rescued, 146,000 homes were damaged or destroyed and 13 people died. 

Eleven thousand people are in shelters, many because all the family members lost their homes.  Businesses are closed or reduced in work with many who have lost their jobs. There’s no work to go to. 

The impact is being felt in 20 Louisiana parishes (the equivalent of counties) and a third of the state. Everyone has either suffered from flooding or knows someone affected. Many Catholic churches and schools flooded. But they’re pulling together, pooling their resources and taking care of people who are suffering.  A flood is a disaster event that affects all senses.  It affects the body, the mind and the soul.

Lessons have been learned in Louisiana and they’re using new techniques to aid in the recovery like PODs, or points of distribution, to get help directly to people. There’s also something called MAST, or multi agency service teams, where all the governmental and non-profit groups are serving as one stop intake and needs assessment so that victims are not required to apply and tell their story over and over.

So learning this information the folks at the orientation left for their assigned shelters to begin performing their MAST roles. My team - which included case workers from Louisiana Catholic Charities, Oklahoma Catholic Charities and myself - left for a shelter in Ascension Parish, east of Baton Rouge. It was a large structure normally used by LSU Agricultural Extension. There were beds everywhere. What struck me was people caring for their neighbors and trying to make the best of a very difficult situation. 

I watched a man getting a haircut by a delightful woman who spoke softly to him as she worked. When she had finished he asked if he could pray for her and he did so for quite some time. I watched the same woman cut hair and comfort women, men and children all day. 

Across from our work station was a woman sitting in a strategic position so she could speak to all who passed by, giving them best wishes. Later, she came to visit with us so she could tell us her good news and introduce her friend and neighbor. Her good news was that FEMA had approved her application for temporary assistance and had deposited the funds in her bank account. But even better was her friend who had not been flooded had come to visit with her and report that she had finished washing all her clothes.  Her friend commented that when everyone is hurting you do what you need to do.

Tuesday, August 30

BATON ROUGE Everyone knows that floods are devastating to all who suffer the crippling affects. Water permeates everything — the furniture, carpet, clothes and bedding.  Mud is mixed into living spaces and moisture seeps into the very fabric of the place that people call home. But, to me, the most pervasive reminder of the disaster is the smell. The smell is everywhere and in everything. Once you breathe it in, the smell stays with you long after the debris is cleared. The odor of raw water -  untreated and unfiltered - bonds into the psyche.

We started our second day like the first … with a meeting. It began with David Aguillare, executive director of Catholic Charities, together with Maria Vorley of Catholic Charities USA discussing the realities of disaster recovery including the early chaos and struggle to organize. Everything changes from day to day. In this event he reminded us that they are still in the process of recovery from a flood in March. So he was asking us to remain flexible. We were also told that additional training is scheduled. 

Next there was a review of assignments and a discussion of challenges in the shelters, especially with transportation.  People are having difficulty getting to appointments with doctors, Social Security and FEMA housing inspectors. Folks who had received temporary housing assistance were showing up at hotels to be told that the hotel was full — first come, first served. Many have no cars because they were flooded, others because they never had one. Many are dependent on prepaid phones and running out of minutes. They can’t even call for appointments or ask for assistance. Hispanics have all the same problems plus the language issues. Families need strollers and car seats. Rides are needed to DMV to replace driver licenses or get official ID cards. There are trust issues in isolated rural areas and in Hispanic neighborhoods. People may not talk to FEMA, but will with “church folk” like Catholic Charities.

ASCENSION PARISH My team returned to the Lamar Dixon Ag Center after the meeting. Like Monday it started out slow. We got a visit from one of the shelter managers asking if we would see victims not housed at the shelter. Of course, we were happy to help anyone and our activity picked up substantially.  Our main objectives with the intake interviews were, first, to allow people to tell their story. Then we are able to get enough information to determine the needs of the individuals and families. There seemed to be one very common theme with each story. Each story always seemed to end with, “I hated to leave my home!” We tried to listen with compassion and to offer some hope, or at least that there was someone who cared. People are as concerned with how much you know till they know how much you care.

The most excitement of the day came when a man showed up with money in a cooler wanting to give it away. Our team had been returning from lunch when we saw people scurrying across the parking lot toward a guy with a TV camera. We had no idea what was going on until one of our clients said that the man was trying to give away money, but wasn’t allowed to do it in the shelter. So he began giving it out from a cooler. The crowd got to the point that the deputies and military police arrived to monitor what was going on. In any case, the money didn’t last for very long. 

Thursday, September 1

BATON ROUGE In the morning briefing staff was advised to look for and report on clients seeking solutions to problems that were keeping them from leaving the shelter.  The goal is to have people find better, if not permanent, environments in which to live.

ASCENSION PARISH The very first people encountered was a family who needed a tire and rim fixed on their car plus gas money so they could drive to Houston to live with family.  staff began making calls to various sources until a source was found to solve the problem. 

The widow of a retired Navy Chief Petty Officer came to ask for help and just to talk.  She reminded me of my own late mother—loud, charming and with a salty sense of humor.  She had custody of all her grandchildren who were living with her when the flood struck.  And she began to tell us with delight about each one.  We cried with her over the loss of her husband who had died four years earlier.  It was obvious that she missed him very much.  Before she left I asked her to pray with me and she wanted me to know that her marriage was blessed by the Church.  We prayed for her grandchildren, her late husband, for her and she said a prayer for me.

Later in the morning a mental health counselor came to visit with the mentally disabled man we had referred the previous day.  Surprisingly his very elderly parents showed up with his documentation to help him qualify for assistance.

When we arrived at the shelter on Monday there were 204 residents.  We got a count of 156 at the end of the day.  Lamar Dixon shelter is starting to diminish in population and beginning the wind down process.  

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 *Some entries were edited for space.