When Robert and Elsie Whittle heard Hurricane Laura was headed right for them, they couldn’t believe it.
A tree had already fallen on the back of their home earlier this summer when high winds and tornadoes had torn through their hometown of Leesville, Louisiana. They’d lost their kitchen, and since they didn’t have homeowner’s insurance, Elsie had been cooking on the porch. Now they might lose everything.
But they couldn’t think about that — right then, they just knew they couldn’t lose power.
“Robert has to have electricity because he’s on oxygen, so we couldn’t stay here,” Elsie Whittle said.
So they headed to stay with family in East Texas. And when they came back, they’d lost their second “kitchen” — a tree had fallen on their porch.
But that’s when a storm of a different kind showed up — a team of Alabama Baptist Disaster Relief volunteers mostly from North Jefferson Baptist Association, plus two from South Carolina.
They pulled a tree off the front of the house using a skid steer loader and chainsaws, and the Whittles cheered.
They were one family of many who had help show up in their yard in recent days.
On Aug. 27 — a few weeks before Hurricane Sally pounded Alabama and the Florida Panhandle — Hurricane Laura, a category 4 storm, plowed through the Whittles’ state as well as parts of Texas. It caused major damage, killed 14 people and left more than half a million without power.
But Southern Baptists responded, including many Alabama Baptists. So far, Southern Baptist Disaster Relief volunteers have collectively served more than 93,700 hours, prepared more than 315,000 meals and helped with cleanup at more than 1,100 homes that had significant storm damage from Laura. They’ve also made nearly 1,200 gospel presentations and seen 263 people make professions of faith in Christ.
And even as other crews got ready to help in places where Sally might cause damage, teams in Louisiana kept going.
“Flexibility is the key to this work,” said Tim Folds, the blue hat crew leader of Geneva Baptist Association Disaster Relief, which was also serving in Leesville. “You never know during storm season what’s going to happen.”
It was a personal statement for Folds, who serves as pastor of Pleasant Hill Baptist Church, Slocomb. As Hurricane Sally made landfall on the Alabama coast in the wee hours of Sept. 16, Folds found his attention divided. While he cut up trees in Louisiana, he was thinking of his church back home, as well as his daughter who lives in Bonifay, Florida, just about an hour from the Gulf Coast.
Phil Merritt, a member of Watermark Church, Ashford, also felt torn between two disasters. His son lives in Fairhope, just northeast of Mobile.
“We’ve been texting back and forth all day, and he seems to be doing well,” Merritt said Sept. 16, adding that he was right where he needed to be for the moment.
“People are in misery when we come to them, and we can bring a smile to their face,” Merritt said of the disaster relief work.
Just down the road from the crew that was working on the Whittles’ home, Folds and Merritt worked to help homeowners like Barbara Molde, who came back to Leesville after the storm to find trees down all around her house.
She was thankful for the Sept. 16 arrival of a yellow-shirted Southern Baptist Disaster Relief chainsaw crew consisting of volunteers from Alabama, Florida and South Carolina.
It’s “truly amazing” to be on the receiving end of disaster relief efforts, she said.
A crew also helped with cleanup at First Baptist Church, DeRidder, Louisiana, which was one of the state’s seven Incident Command Centers, hubs where Southern Baptist teams from across the country converge to serve the areas in need.
The church had 17 pecan trees down around it when a trailer full of volunteers from Alabama showed up, cleared the church property and left, said Dan Batchelor, pastor of administration at the church.
“We don’t know who they were, but we said, ‘Roll Tide,’” he joked.
But Batchelor is serious when it comes to ministering to the community.
He’s been through storms before — prior to coming to First, DeRidder, he served in a similar role at Trinity Baptist Church, Lake Charles, an area about an hour south that was hit particularly hard by Hurricane Laura.
Grieving with others
He grieves with the people around him who face significant losses.
“I try to ease them toward looking to what they do have. They still have their life. They still have their family,” he said — and they still have a Father who loves them.
By coming alongside Batchelor, Alabama crews and volunteers from other states help the Incident Command Center keep rolling to help the hurting people in the community.
Crews have been serving between 2,000 and 3,000 meals a day from First, DeRidder, working in conjunction with the American Red Cross.
And from the most experienced workers to the first-time volunteers like David Branham, a member of Calcedonia Baptist Church, Gardendale, all say they see clearly the purpose that keeps them going even when they’re weary.
“It’s been great,” Branham said. “We’ve got to pace ourselves, but everybody is really great at checking on one another and taking care of one another.”