By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
SUGAR LAND — With Hurricane Irma and possible other major storms looming in the future, Tennessee Baptist Disaster Relief volunteers kept their focus on victims of Hurricane Harvey last week.
Dozens of Tennessee Baptist DR volunteers served in the Houston area, many of them at Sugar Land Baptist Church in Sugar Land, a suburb southwest of Houston.
Don Owen, DR director for Nolachucky Baptist Association and a member of First Baptist Church, Morristown, served as the “white cap” or head of the operations at Sugar Land Baptist.
Owen said he was impressed with the way Texans helped themselves and others following Hurricane Harvey, which blasted Texas and Louisiana in late August causing deadly and damaging wind and flooding.
As of Sept. 4, it was estimated that at least 60 people lost their lives due to Harvey. Many areas received as much as 40 inches of rain in a short time span, according to news reports.
Owen, a veteran of many DR responses, including Hurricane Katrina, noted that it is hard to really compare Katrina with Harvey. Katrina brought total devastation to the New Orleans area, but the scope is much wider with Harvey, he said.
“I think that when all is said and done, Hurricane Harvey will be more costly than Katrina,” Owen said.
In the meantime, Owen has seen “neighbors are helping neighbors.”
He said Tennessee Baptist DR volunteers “are hoping to find those families who are handicapped or elderly or single-parent families that may not have had help yet.”
The team Owen led from Nolachucky Association, which also included volunteers from neighboring Jefferson County, Knox County, and Grainger Baptist Associations, found one such individual in Thurman Talafuse, a 93-year-old World War II veteran who lived alone in Wharton, Texas.
Volunteers helped Talafuse sort through his belongings as they had to take most of them to the street because they were not salvageable.
Kathy Henry, a member of Talbott Baptist Church, Talbott, noted that everywhere they went they heard story after story of the hurricane’s devastation.
She was one of the volunteers who helped Talafuse. “We are clearing out 93 years of his life,” she reflected. “It’s really heartbreaking.”
Henry observed that being part of a DR recovery team is not easy.
“We hope we can be a blessing to Mr. Thurman and all the other people here,” she said.
Owen noted that in Sugar Land the devastation was not as evident as it was in other parts of the Houston area, but there still was significant damage, especially in the neighborhoods closest to the Brazos River which is near the church.
Taylor Sandlin, pastor of Sugar Land Baptist Church which opened its doors to the Tennessee team, agreed.
“It’s been a crazy two weeks,” he acknowledged. Sandlin said the church and community were under a mandatory evacuation notice as the church is only a quarter of a mile from the Brazos River. While the church and its immediate community were spared, thousands upon thousands of homes in nearby areas were flooded.
There was urban flooding with neighborhoods of homes of 1,000 or more completely flooded to rural areas where houses were destroyed by the wind, he observed.
“It’s been overwhelming for the churches in Texas,” Sandlin continued. He praised the lay leaders of his church and the staff in responding as well as they did immediately following the storm, but he is grateful for the help provided by Tennessee volunteers and others.
“There was no way we could meet all the needs, so we were so glad to see the Tennessee volunteers show up in our parking lot.”
Sandlin asked for continued prayer from Tennessee Baptists in the days ahead as the shock of the storms wears off. “There will be immense emotional needs to meet not only from those who lost everything but for those volunteers who responded,” Sandlin said.
He also asked for prayer that there will be opportunity to meet spiritual needs as well. “We are already seeing opportunities to share the love of Christ with people.”
Sandlin said the church is located in a diverse community and it soon became apparent that the Tennessee teams would be assisting Hispanic victims and no one on their team is fluent in Spanish. Owen made a phone call to Texas Baptist Men and the team connected with Alicia Rodriguez, one of their volunteers.
Rodriguez translated for the Tennessee team as they completed assessments of homes in Hispanic communities.
She was impressed with the Tennessee volunteers and cited their organization as a key to being able to provide help in a timely fashion.
Although glitches arise, everything has gone smoothly, she observed.
Rodriguez cited the attitude, faith, eagerness, and love Tennessee Baptists demonstrate as keys for “working so well.”
Owen noted that Rodriguez “made our work easier in communicating with the Hispanic families.”
In addition to the teams that worked directly through Tennessee Baptist Disaster Relief, other churches and associations also worked with people they knew in the area, including a team from CrossNet Baptist Network, based in Cleveland.
The team worked with Texas Baptist Men and a local Houston Baptist association, said Phil Taylor, director of missions for CrossNet.
Feeding unit provides meals
Besides recovery efforts Tennessee Baptists also provided hot meals to victims and DR volunteers and others.
Jim Ramey, disaster relief director for Sullivan Baptist Association and a member of Sullivan Baptist Church, Kingsport, led a team from his association and others to Sugar Land on Sunday, Sept. 3.
The team overcame multiple obstacles, including accidents and blown tires, in order to begin feeding operations on Tuesday, Sept. 5.
In two days, the team had provided 17,000 meals through dinner on Thursday, Sept. 7, Ramey said. The meal count increased each day as pockets of people who needed food were discovered, he added.
Ramey and his team returned to East Tennessee on Sunday as a team from Knoxville was scheduled to arrive to continue providing meals for at least another week, he said.
State DR update
Wes Jones, disaster relief specialist for the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board, reported Sept. 10 that the next group of volunteers are headed to Houston.
“Reports that are coming from out of Texas are that our volunteers are doing a great job,” Jones said. In addition, he noted that volunteers are “singing the praises” of the Texans who are hosting them. “The community in that area is working hard with neighbor helping neighbor to clean out the damaged homes. We are grateful for the cooperation we see on all sides.”
Jones added that Texas has asked for chain saw teams to come and assist with downed trees. A bucket truck will not be needed. Teams interested in assisting in Houston can contact Jones at email@example.com or Elizabeth Holmes at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Those who have seen the devastation in Houston know that the relief efforts there will be ongoing. Pastor Sandlin said the response “is going to be for a long time.”
Owen is grateful that Tennessee has been able to help Texans in their time of need.
He noted that many volunteers came to Tennessee following the fires in Gatlinburg last November to assist in rebuilding efforts.
“I look at this as we are repaying the Texans for the people they sent to help us. Now, it is our turn to help them.”
For updates on the storm and relief efforts, visit www.baptistandreflector.org. If you would like to donate to the response effort, visit http://tndisasterrelief.org/contributions/ or mail a check to TBMB DR, PO Box 682789, Franklin, TN, 37068. Write “Hurricane Relief” in the memo line.