Rita: the forgotten storm

July 14, 2015
Story by Betty Backstrom

Thousands of residents in southwest Louisiana struggled for years to emerge from the devastation of Hurricane Rita, often called “the forgotten storm” by residents of the state.
 
“Hurricane Katrina was such a terrible event that permanently affected people’s lives.  So a lot of people throughout the country, and even in Louisiana, didn’t realize the extent of the damage caused by Rita in the Southwest portion of the state,” said Brandi Russell, who served as director for the conference Lake Charles Storm Center during the heart of storm response.
 
The Category 3 hurricane that struck the coasts of Louisiana and Texas was the fourth most intense Atlantic hurricane ever recorded, according to the National Hurricane Center. Rita reached the state at Holly Beach on Sept. 24, 2005—less than a month after Katrina hit.
 
In the beginning of the state’s disaster response, volunteers poured into the New Orleans area to help the city rebuild—but the response to Southwest Louisiana was slower. “Many have never heard of Abbeville or Cameron. People knew about New Orleans, which is such a large urban city,” said Rev. Doug Ezell, who was serving as Lake Charles district superintendent at the time.
 
Despite the challenges, church volunteers faithfully organized distribution centers, helped with clean up and offered counsel to their neighbors. “This area of the state is used to hurricanes. There is a community spirit among everyone who lives here, and folks immediately began to pull together after the storm had passed,” added Ezell.
 
The examples of generosity abound. Sweet Lake United Methodist Church assisted 450 families during the 2005 Christmas season by providing gifts for those who had lost everything. Warren UMC in Lake Charles helped to operate a food distribution and counseling center for storm survivors. St. Luke-Simpson UMC, also in Lake Charles, housed a collection center and provided volunteers at Red Cross centers and for debris removal teams.
 
All three of these churches received extensive damage during the Category 3 storm—but they, along with almost every local church throughout the Louisiana Conference, played an active role in the response effort.
 
First United Methodist Church in New Iberia retrofitted the church’s gymnasium, building bunk beds to create housing for first responders, members of the National Guard, firefighters and members of disaster response teams from across the country.
 
“We fed the community and we fed volunteer teams with big pots of red beans and rice, jambalaya and boiled shrimp. The church collected flood buckets and water for distribution. This was a big hospitality effort for First UMC,” said Rev. Scott Bullock, pastor of First UMC in New Iberia.
 
After a few years of disaster recovery work, the church’s efforts gave birth to a long-term response ministry that is very active today. “To provide adequate housing for visiting teams, we bought and restored another building. The Edith McMullen Mission Building became a reality due to a generous gift from Mrs. McMullen.  As a matter of fact, we just housed youth and adult workers from the Texas Conference,” said Bullock.
 
Although the dust has long since settled from Hurricane Rita, volunteers from First UMC continue to collaborate with Habitat for Humanity and other local groups to identify needs and to reach out to help members of the community.