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Power outages hamper Gustav disaster response

Residents of Baton Rouge, La., wait in line to enter an Albertson's grocery store while rain from Hurricane Gustav continues to fall and flood the parking lot.
UMNS photos by Mike DuBose.

Sept. 4, 2008 | BATON ROUGE, La. (UMNS) 

As widespread power outages persisted in parts of Louisiana, hurricane damage reports trickled into the state’s central United Methodist office and residents began returning home from the largest evacuation in state history.

Staff members at the church's Louisiana Annual (regional) Conference fielded phone calls and assessed needs in order to develop a statewide emergency response plan.

"Power outages are a big issue here," said Betty Backstrom, a conference spokesperson. "There are a lot of uprooted trees, a lot of debris, a lot of downed power lines. That's the big, big story."

Representatives from the United Methodist Committee on Relief toured some of the state's hardest-hit parishes on Sept. 4 to determine how United Methodists elsewhere can help through the church's disaster relief organization.

The Rev. Larry Norman inspects hurricane damage to the parsonage at First United Methodist Church in Denham Springs, La.


UMCOR's Rev. Tom Hazelwood and Sandra Kennedy-Owes were touring Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes, along with Bishop William W. Hutchinson, the church's episcopal leader in Louisiana; the Rev. Darryl Tate, director of disaster response for the conference; and the Rev. Don Cottrill, conference director of connectional ministries.

'It wasn't a flood this time'

Baton Rouge in southwest Louisiana was one of the worst-hit areas from Hurricane Gustav, which has left more than 800,000 people without power since its Sept. 1 landfall. While Hurricane Katrina-ravaged New Orleans was largely spared this time, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said Gustav left its mark on other parts of the state, including areas hit by Hurricane Rita in September 2005.

"It wasn’t a flood this time, it was trees down," Tate said. "We will be looking to help the least, the last and the lost, who are mostly people without insurance."

Sunny skies returned to Baton Rouge on Sept. 4 after days of tornado warnings and flash flood reports. However, the sunshine was a mixed blessing.

"With the power out, that means a lot of people don't have air conditioning, which is a big issue here and especially rough for seniors and folks with health issues," Backstrom said.

Utility officials said it could take up to six weeks to restore power in some areas. Meanwhile, long lines were typical at grocery stores and gas stations.

The most pressing need

Serving as the church's hub for disaster relief, the conference center in downtown Baton Rouge was not damaged and lost power for only a brief period following Gustav. Conference staff worked the phones to gather reports from local pastors and lay leaders.

"We've been blessed to have air conditioning and electricity because it's afforded us a workspace where we can communicate with our local churches and those expressing needs and to begin processing everything," Backstrom said.

"Our disaster response organization is gearing up, and now new cases from Gustav will be added to our cases from Katrina and Rita. There will be a lot of cleanup needed for Gustav. We're developing a larger group of first responders to be part of teams that will go out and do a lot of tree and debris removal. That's going to be our most pressing need."

Early reports indicated that damage to churches and parsonages was minimal, although a tree crashed through the roof of the parsonage of Denham Springs First United Methodist Church. No one was injured in that incident.

Bishop William W. Hutchinson (left) and disaster relief leaders say a prayer for
the Rev. Bob Deich (second from left)
and his family inside the parsonage.


Camp Istrouma, a United Methodist campground northeast of Baton Rouge, reported significant damage, including a three-foot-wide oak tree that fell on the manager’s house. The manager and his family were at home at the time, but no one was injured, said the Rev. Bill Moon, pastor of Blackwater United Methodist Church.

How to help

First United Methodist Church in downtown Baton Rouge will open its doors to volunteers wanting to help with the cleanup. The church is moving a shower trailer to its parking lot and plans to offer water and ice and a place to stay. Volunteers should bring their own food because most grocery stores have not reopened.

Cleanup crews and mission teams wanting to assist should contact the conference disaster response ministry at laumdisastermin@bellsouth.net or at (225) 346-5193.

UMCOR encourages United Methodists to ship flood buckets and other kits to its Sager Brown Depot in Baldwin, La. Information about flood bucket preparation can be found online.

Financial donations can be made to UMCOR Advance No. 3019695, "Hurricanes 2008, Hurricane Gustav." Mail checks to UMCOR, P.O. Box 9068, New York, NY 10087, and write the Advance number and name on the memo line of the check. Credit-card donations can be made online.

"Baton Rouge gave after Katrina, and now it needs to receive aid," said Cottrill. "Gustav will open up fresh wounds both spiritually and emotionally, and the church needs to be a place they can turn to."

*Kathy L. Gilbert, a United Methodist News Service writer reporting from Baton Rouge, contributed to this story.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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