A Lovesong for the Long-Haul: LA UMC Pastors on Hurricane Ida Aftermath

Britney Winn Lee
September 05, 2021
If Louisianans held anything in common last Saturday night, surely it was the onslaught of disaster-decision texts shooting out from the southernmost communities of our state, as folks attempted to employ the most frustratingly impossible superpower of predicting the future. Here’s what hurricane-veterans know: the storm can change in an instant. Therefore, the months to come are anyone’s (losing) game once the warm waters of the gulf have fed a system to the point of naming her.
“We’re headed north.”
“We’re hunkering down.”
“Can we bring our dogs?”
“There’s no way she can travel.”
Houston, Lake Charles, Grand Isle, and Gulfport all navigate the same possibilities when the weatherperson’s maps begin to show spirals. Monday could have brought with it business as usual or life-altering devastation once Hurricane Ida—a powerful, Category 4 storm—made landfall. For communities like Destrehan, LaPlace, Houma, and Hammond, Louisiana (and every small town in-between), this time, it was the latter.
“The Sunday School building [where so much activity takes place] is a complete loss and needs to be demolished,” Rev. Michelle Harris of Saint Charles UMC in Destrehan said on a call between spotty cell service this past Thursday. “There isn’t a house that doesn’t need a tarp . . . we’re getting to the point where we’re asking how much rain we can take before the ceiling caves in.”
Michelle’s husband Rev. Jason Harris also serves a United Methodist congregation in LaPlace, LA whose church, she said, had two feet of floodwater throughout the whole building—the most they’ve ever taken on.
As Christ-followers, we are called to be long-haul neighbors committed to authenticity and willing to take some risks. Our vocation is to invest deeply in the lives of those around us, devoted to one another, physically close to each other as we breathe the same air and walk the same blocks. Our purpose is not so mysterious after all. We get to love and be deeply loved right where we’re planted, by whomever happens to be near. We will inevitably encounter brokenness we cannot fix, solve, or understand, and we’ll feel as small, uncertain, and outpaced as we have ever felt. But we’ll find our very lives in this calling, to be among people as Jesus was, and it will change everything
Shannan Martin, The Ministry of Ordinary Places

“It doesn’t look as bad as Hurricane Katrina [here] . . . but it is as bad in terms of infrastructure and system damage,” emphasized Michelle, noting the massive hit to the oil refinery industry in Southwest LA along with gas shortages and power outages in the thick of the August heat.
Just 45-minutes down HWY 90, Rev. Ted Fine of Houma First United Methodist Church reiterated what so many in the area who rode out the storm said of Sunday night: “That was a horror story.”
“We kept thinking, ‘That’s the worst,’ and it just didn’t stop.” The howling winds and snapping oaks have been described by many who stayed as nightmarish or the worst hours of their lives. Also haunted were the thousands of evacuees lacking control and proximity, waiting to hear what would be left of their worlds.
Rev. Ted shared that electricity in Houma—where massive wind damage occurred— is likely to be out for at least a month. Ida evacuees have been instructed by Gov. John Bel Edwards not to return, especially to areas with road blockages and water outages.
To be sure, it wasn’t just the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain that felt Ida’s rage. Updates from Rev. Drew Sutton of FUMC Hammond have shown the chaos of downed trees in the community, including significant damage to the church. Video of wild roots and large branches rammed through roof shingles and scattered across property into natural barricades indicate a long road of recovery ahead.
“You can see the extent of the tree damage at FUMC Hammond,” Drew writes. “This is reflective of the damage everywhere in Hammond and the surrounding communities.”*
With transition towers obliterated, barges loose, levees overtopped, extensive flooding has occurred, rescues necessitated, and schools closed indefinitely for many in parishes like Plaquemines, Lafourche, Terrebonne, and Tangipahoa, this is long-haul pain.
But we are long-haul people.
Rev. Michelle Harris shared that their top priority was to get the Fellowship Hall up and running to serve as food and water distribution and team-hosting.**
“We have experience hosting Red Cross Staff post-Katrina, and we hope to be able to do that kind of ministry again, both in short term and long term recovery. We definitely want people to know that we can host. There’s so much need all around us. We are prepared to receive a few small teams as early as this weekend. We don’t have any power, but we have space for 20-30 people and a lot of need.”
Rev. Ted Fine confirmed many of the same immediate needs outlined by Michelle: gas, tarps, water, work gloves, box fans, big black trash bags, sunscreen and bug spray, first aid kits. His church’s campus, which thankfully experienced little to no damage, is also opening to serve as a distribution center.***
Rev. Drew Sutton —encouraging his community to utilize the Crisis Cleanup resource—shared that 600 people would be coming into the Hammond area this weekend addressing needs. This is just the beginning, but it is beginning. Help is on its way and is, to be sure, already here.
“[I want people to know] how thankful we are . . . we are so relieved to know there is help coming,” Michelle answered when asked what additional words she wanted shared with Louisiana United Methodists at large.
“Tell them that [the meme that said ‘If you want to know what it means to be an American, look to South Louisiana tomorrow morning] is true. The person who shows up on your driveway to help is the indicator that God is alive and afoot in Houma, LA,” Ted exclaimed.
“I’ve gotten so many calls from people outside of this community,” Drew shared, “from people asking how do we help. I’ve seen so many people in our church who need help who are getting support, whether that’s from other church members or other people in our community. The church is not in recovery, the church is actually at work, doing what it knows how to do so well, which is show up for people . . . This keeps happening, and we know how to do this.” 
Rev. Bob Deich, Louisiana Conference Disaster Response Coordinator, offered a needed reminder for this moment in a video shared online last Tuesday, “It was out of the darkness and in the chaos that God said, ‘Let there be light.’ And it was in the darkest moments of the disciples’ lives when Christ sent his Holy Spirit to be with them in very dark and troublesome times. And we’ve seen some dark days this last week with Hurricane Ida . . . Be patient . . . Be prayerful . . . Be generous.”
The journey ahead is complex and rightly so—filled with both triage and rehab efforts, insurance claims and bucket truck parades, adrenaline highs and compassion fatigue, questions about climate change and environmental refugees, retelling the story, and sharing the load again and again and again. What is essential now is exactly what we vowed to give as United Methodists: our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness; to show up in the ways we can for the people God loves for as long as is needed—a reality which is itself a story of grace.
South Louisiana, we’re with you. Today and all the days ahead.
**To watch Rev. Drew Sutton’s inspiring video amid Hammond damage, click here.
**To reach Rev. Michelle Harris about bringing a team, use the contact information available on the Saint Charles UMC Facebook page.
**To contact Rev. Ted Fine about supporting the Houma UMC distribution site, call or send an inquiry to the church.
-And to donate to disaster relief efforts through the Louisiana Conference of the UMC, use this giving link.
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