"Here for the Long Haul"

March 13, 2018

Louisiana Conference remains vigilant on the front lines of disaster relief

Like everyone else caught up in the Great Baton Rouge Flood, Marie Montecino had no idea those storm clouds moving over her home on Aug. 14, 2016, were bringing more than rain; tragedy was on the horizon.

As the water rose, word spread about the unprecedented flooding in the area, and rescues were underway. A neighbor helped Montecino get out and rescued her two dogs and a handful of other pets she was watching. “We had so many pets, it was like Noah’s ark,” Montecino laughs.

Montecino represents one of the hundreds of households that eventually turned to the church for assistance when they ran out of insurance money, FEMA assistance, and hope.

She is not alone.

There are many more still out there, living tiresome versions of their former lives in FEMA trailers. They no longer are top-of-mind for the rest of us, save for the sporadic TV news stories on the slow progress of long-term recovery.

Rev. Laraine Waughtal isn’t like the rest of us, thank God. 

"It was like Noah's ark!"

“A lot of people don’t realize there are families still out of their homes,” says Waughtal, director of the Louisiana Conference’s Office of Mission Engagement and Outreach. “We still have people who have never been helped by anybody. Their situation is the most urgent.”

Waughtal and her staff line up contractors and volunteers to help an estimated 100 trailer-bound flood survivors restore their homes so they can get back to their pre-flood lives. In addition to those 100 families who registered with the Louisiana Conference, the church is assisting 134 households in the Baton Rouge area to complete sheetrock work, install flooring, replace cabinets - the basics of home living.

"I am grateful for Rev. Laraine Waughtal," says Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey. "I am most grateful for her diligence to be certain that our resources both fiscal and human are appropriately leveraged as we work with agencies and governmental organizations across the state."  

None of this counts the 93 families who were flooded out by Hurricane Harvey in southwest Louisiana and now are receiving aid from the Louisiana Conference. Waughtal expects that number to double in the next few months as fix-it-yourself homeowners run out of expertise and money.

“Harvey was not declared a federal disaster in Louisiana, so there are no FEMA funds available in the Lake Charles area,” she explains. “That means the onus is back on the churches and the 501(c)(3) organizations.”

But that’s nothing new to the United Methodist Church, which has a long and well-earned reputation for restoring lives in times of disaster. Through UMCOR grants and donations from churches and individuals, the Louisiana Conference already has provided substantial help to hundreds of families from Bossier City to Sulphur to Denham Springs. And though that is a cause for celebration, the work continues.

"Following the 2016 floods we estimated that the recovery efforts would take a minimum of five years," says Bishop Harvey. "Our predictions were correct.  The work that remains will take five years and perhaps even more. We are known to be the last to leave an area impacted by disaster.  We will continue to work as long as funds are available focusing on the most vulnerable populations who have exhausted other available resources." 

“The beauty of the Methodist church is we’re first in and we’re last out,” Waughtal says. “Our mission is to restore their homes and help them to get on with their lives. We’re here for the long haul.”

That means going beyond repairing the house’s frame and making sure the inside is livable.

“We don’t do just what we call bricks and sticks,” she says. “We want them to live there and function and that includes beds, functional furniture, things they need. Nobody gets a TV from us because that’s a luxury item.”

Case managers initially meet with the family to determine what level of support is needed - in essence, vetting the family about what they’ve already received from flood insurance, FEMA, personal funds or money available from friends or relatives.

“Usually,” Waughtal says, “they’re elderly, disabled or have serious health issues and don’t have much in the way of resources.”

In Montecino’s case, she had already used up all of her FEMA award money, but her house was not yet livable. She still needed electrical work, bedroom flooring, paint, replacement doors and basic appliances, such as a refrigerator and a dryer.

“A flood ruins everything,” Montecino says. “It gets to the point where just about everything has to be thrown out and replaced.”

Once the need is defined, construction workers come in and direct the volunteers, who do much of the work. Volunteers make up a major element of the Louisiana Conference’s disaster relief efforts, and their help keeps costs down. Waughtal and her staff recruit and schedule potential volunteers from across the country, many of whom have developed excellent rebuilding skills as they move from disaster to disaster.

Essential to the Methodists’ long-haul approach is making sure there’s enough money left to finish the job. Waughtal keeps track of donations that come in and money that goes out in the form of roofing nails, beds, ovens and a ton of other necessities.

“A lot of people want to give to a specific event, and the money flows in when that happens,” she says. “We had to shut down the assistance in north Louisiana when we ran out of money. And in Baton Rouge and the Lake Charles area, we’re still working, but finances are needed, and people are not as aware as they were. This is not on their radar.”

As of March, the Louisiana Annual Conference had received $3.87 million in UMCOR grants and donations from individuals, churches, and companies for three disasters - the Spring 2016 floods in north Louisiana, the Baton Rouge area flood and Hurricane Harvey relief for southwest Louisiana.

Thus far, $2.25 million in aid has helped survivors, leaving $1.62 million for Waughtal and her staff to help the 420 households who still need assistance from the Baton Rouge and Lake Charles disasters.

It doesn’t sound as though that’s enough, but Waughtal has her eyes fixed on more than just the bottom line. Today, Montecino is back in her home, able to enjoy life with her two dogs and friends from church.

“I’m so grateful, I couldn’t have gotten this work done without them,” she says. “The volunteers were terrific."

Marie Montecino is one of the hundreds of success stories, a testament to the generosity of donors who respond swiftly in times of disasters. But these days, the disaster relief outflow is rising faster than the income, so Waughtal and her staff monitor the fiscal gauges to make certain there’s enough money left for the last person who needs help. 

Story by: Mark Lambert 

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