Restoring Homes and Hope in Lake Charles

Mark Lambert
January 03, 2022

“I saw people who have been depressed, but I think I saw a glimmer of hope today.”

  • Coalition to begin work early January 
  • The coalition includes the Office of Missional Engagement and Outreach, Mennonite Disaster Services, Fuller Center, with financial assistance from The United Methodist Foundation of Louisiana
  • The Louisiana Conference is coordinating the recovery work
  • Local United Methodist churches identify families and individuals who have exhausted all avenues of help
  • Fuller Center will serve as construction managers, and the Amish, working under Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS), will provide labor
Catching a glimpse of Amish men deep in Cajun country is as likely as experiencing two major hurricanes, a freak ice storm, and a major flood in less than nine months during a worldwide pandemic.

And yet, there it was, these modest, bearded men from Ohio, joining representatives of the non-denominational Fuller Center Disaster Rebuilders at the invitation of the Methodists in a Baptist fellowship hall in Lake Charles, Louisiana, a town that’s been bullied and kicked in the teeth every few months since Hurricane Laura barreled through in August 2020.
Gumbo is served as Coalition meets for the first time in Lake Charles.
This Tuesday evening gathering in December was the official kickoff of a multi-group effort to rebuild damaged homes in Lake Charles. The Louisiana Conference of the United Methodist Church is coordinating the recovery work through its own disaster case management and financial support. Fuller will serve as construction managers, and the Amish, working under Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS), will provide the labor.

This small contingency of Amish men came to southwest Louisiana for a two-day run-through, a chance for them to lay their eyes and hands on the work that is needed, confirm labor and material needs, and arrange lodging for the dozens who will follow in the coming months. The physical work begins around January 8, when more than a dozen Amish workers will travel to Louisiana and work through March to repair floors, replace moldy walls, and raise new roofs.

This coalition of the improbable is being led by an unlikely leader in Bill Howell, who had just come out of retirement several weeks earlier to lead the Office of Missional Engagement and Outreach for the Louisiana Conference. Howell was on the job the week after Hurricane Ida devastated parts of southeast Louisiana, and he immediately dispatched Emergency Response Teams to the hardest-hit areas. Those early response efforts continue along the coastal parishes and as far north as Hammond. Long-term recovery is a more complicated situation, and Howell saw a need to marshal forces with other groups to make a real difference for people in the Lake Charles area.
Bill Howell meets with the Coalition leaders. The massive effort to restore homes in Lake Charles will begin in early January. 
If ever a place needed the help, it’s Lake Charles, a community The Weather Channel calls “America’s Most Weather-Battered City.”

Strategic Vision

“Tonight was a bringing together of the community, the Amish, the coalition,” said Howell, who noted that many of them had not met face-to-face before the organizational meeting. “We’re going to do some terrific things for God and this community. I think everyone’s just anxious to just get out and get their hands and feet into it and make a difference.”

"We are all grateful for Bill Howell and the strategic vision he has brought to this work," says Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey. "His ability to manage logistics that address the greatest and most direct need is a unique gift."

Phil Helmuth, the coordinator for MDS, said he’s still surprised at the speed at which Howell and the Louisiana Conference put together the coalition. “A month and a half ago, I didn’t even know Bill Howell,” Helmuth said. “This has been a journey of faith. I am very moved to be a part of a great community of brothers and sisters in Christ who are working together in response to the needs of these people of the southwest Louisiana area.”

The process starts with the local Methodist churches, which have served on the front lines of response and recovery in Lake Charles since Laura struck. Those churches and pastors identify individuals and families that have exhausted all avenues of help and funnel the information to the coalition.

“We are incredibly reliant on the work of local churches in the Lake Charles district,” Howell said. “They are our eyes and ears to the needs in their community.”

“I give thanks for the local United Methodist churches and pastors in southwest Louisiana,” says Bishop Harvey. “Much of this work begins in the neighborhoods as listening leads to action. Day in and day out, there are dedicated followers of Christ who continue to seek out those in greatest need and ask ‘how can we help?’”

"Marking the Grief"

On this chilly evening, as everyone warmed themselves on gumbo prepared by Howell's wife Katherine, the small-group discussions were of sheetrock and schedules, ladders and lay-down yards, and trucks and trailers. But the true mission and meaning of the work were best expressed by Rev. Bob Deich, the Conference’s Disaster Response Coordinator, as he addressed the group.

“We want to celebrate this gathering and what it represents, of people coming together in the name of Christ to serve,” Deich told the gathered volunteers. “But we can’t get to that celebration without marking the grief of the people we came here to serve.”

Liz Abdalla of Lake Charles has seen that grief from both ends. As construction coordinator for SWLA Responds, a multi-denominational church-based group aiding in the recovery, her daily work centers on helping victims of the storms restore their homes and lives. But Abdalla’s also a victim herself, and she told the group how her own family of seven has had to move four times since losing their home to a 20,000-pound tree during Laura.
My family was faced with trial and grief, but we had hope. We know Jesus. We know that there is hope
Liz Abdalla

“My family was faced with trial and grief, but we had hope. We know Jesus. We know that there is hope,” she said. “There are a lot of people in this city who are starting to lose sight of that hope, and that is what you guys bring….When you walk in, and you walk in with strength, and you walk in with a plan. When you walk in with action, that brings them hope.”

Hope has been elusive in Lake Charles. Many people began mucking out their homes and making repairs immediately after Laura hit, only to see their work undone weeks later when Hurricane Delta took the same path of destruction through town. In February 2021, an ice storm paralyzed Lake Charles, exposing unresolved structural damage from the hurricanes and causing new problems.

Then, a historic flood in May inflicted even more damage, even to homes that had been partially or completely repaired. Because of Covid restrictions, it’s been nearly impossible to organize large-scale relief efforts without endangering the health of those doing the repairs.

Some people discovered their insurance companies would cover only a small portion of the repairs, so they spent all they had and still came up short. Some people stayed elsewhere with friends or family, hoping to one day be able to return to their homes to complete repairs. Some people just walked away.

Some people had no other options, so they stayed in their damaged homes.
Jenee Joseph’s home is still damaged from the 2020 hurricanes, but her family still wanted a Christmas tree this year.

"The tarp had blown off again"

As Laura approached Lake Charles, Jenee Joseph and her family left their home just outside of Lake Charles evacuated to a hotel in Gonzales, some three hours away. After 12 days, Joseph asked hotel management if she could offset the mounting bill by working in housekeeping.

“They declined,” she said.

The family moved to another hotel with more flexible policies, and they stayed for another two weeks before returning to a thoroughly damaged home. Joseph and her husband both work multiple jobs, so they cleaned up before and after work, hired contractors to clear debris, cut down trees, and put a tarp on what remained of their roof.

Then, Delta hit.

“So, we evacuated again. This time we only stayed gone three nights,” she said. “We came back to water all in our living room. The tarp had blown off again. Now we had to re-do debris removal and pay someone again to re-tarp the roof, secure it a little bit better, because we were still in hurricane season.”

Today, Joseph’s roof is back on, but the house is full of wind and water damage that wasn’t covered by insurance or FEMA. The heating and air conditioning system was destroyed, and the coalition members who toured her home for a pre-construction estimate warned her that the temporary space heaters were filling her home with deadly carbon monoxide.

Knowing that the Methodist-led coalition is going to help restore her home “is a huge stress relief,” Joseph said. “I feel like it’s going to give my kids a little more security and comfort because, at this point, my teenager can’t have friends to come over and spend the night.”

It’s tough to get a good night’s sleep in Tomica Simien’s storm-torn home, which has been shaken, twisted, and flooded so often that it’s difficult to assign specific damages to specific storms.

“Laura started it,” Simien said. “The tornadoes finished it.”

Smells of bleach and mold greeted members of the coalition as they walked through the garage. Inside the Lake Charles house, the men inspected the walls, took notes, and nodded in agreement on the cost estimates to repair the roof and transform the house back into a home.

Outside, Tomica expressed her gratitude to the coalition.

“I couldn’t even get back into the house until June, and now my daughter has separation anxiety,” she said. “I had no way of seeing this happen, before. This is a real blessing.”

It’s hard to believe that it’s been a year and a half of waiting for some people in the Lake Charles area.

“I saw people who have been depressed, but I think I saw a glimmer of hope today,” Howell said. “You meet the people in the beginning, but by the time you finish talking with them, you just see a different glimmer coming into their eyes. That’s what this is all about, giving people hope back.”

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