Just a mile inland from the Gulf of Mexico stands First Baptist Church of Cameron, La., which lost its sanctuary to Hurricane Rita 15 years ago. Days ahead of Hurricane Laura, Pastor Charles Hugonin was preparing his church for the worst.
“We’re looking at a 10- to 15-foot storm surge, which will probably cover up to the ceiling of our church,” Hugonin said Aug. 24 when Laura was only a Category 1 storm. But Laura has strengthened to a Category 4, and the National Hurricane Center described the projected storm surge as “unsurvivable” Aug. 26, less than 24 hours before landfall.
Hugonin was at the church with his three sons and a deacon, working to secure what they could before evacuating the area.
“We’re stacking stuff as high as we can, putting stuff in the attic. Everyone’s having to evacuate today,” he said. “We’re coming together trying to get everything secure as possible. We’re trusting God it’s not going to be as bad as we’re thinking.”
Southern Baptist churches and associations from west Louisiana to east Texas prepared for the storm Monday and Tuesday, with mandatory evacuation orders impacting 750,000 or more residents in the target zone.
Southern Baptist Disaster Relief (SBDR) is in gear to help storm survivors, SBDR National Director Sam Porter said Wednesday. SBDR and the Southern Baptist compassion ministry Send Relief are responding, and Baptist conventions in Louisiana and Texas have alerted several DR volunteers.
“The state convention disaster teams of both states are set on ‘standby’ to respond as soon as it is safe to move volunteers and equipment into the massive area within the strike zone of Hurricane Laura,” Porter said. “These state directors are establishing their disaster response sites hosted by local Southern Baptist churches all along the hurricane impact area from the Gulf and possibly into Arkansas.”
At least 10 response sites will be set up at churches in Louisiana, Texas and possibly Arkansas with as many as nine mobile kitchens, each capable of preparing 7,000 to 10,000 meals daily. Chainsaw teams and flood recovery teams will help residents clean flooded homes, and chaplains will be assigned at each site to offer emotional and spiritual support. Send Relief deployed an 18-wheeler Tuesday, filled with several pallets of rolled roofing, Shock Wave mold remediation spray, face masks and shields. Porter said all operations will adhere to strict COVID-19 safety protocols.
Wednesday morning, the National Hurricane Center said Laura’s storm surge is expected to produce “large and destructive waves” that “will cause catastrophic damage from Sea Rim State Park, Texas, to Intracoastal City, La., including Calcasieu and Sabine Lakes. This surge could penetrate up to 30 miles inland from the immediate coastline.”
The National Hurricane Center anticipates storm surges ranging from a high of 20 feet in Johnson Bay in southeast Louisiana, to a low of 2 feet as far west as Freeport, Texas, and as far east as Lake Pontchartrain, La. Inland flooding and hurricane-force winds are expected in some areas.
Southeast Texas churches in the Golden Triangle Baptist Network (GTBN) are still recovering from the September 2019 flooding from Tropical Storm Imelda and the destruction of Hurricane Harvey in 2017, GTBN Executive Director Jim Turbo said.
The network in Beaumont, Texas, has more than 90 member churches, mostly in the coastal counties of Orange and Jefferson, with two congregations in Galveston County. Turbo planned to evacuate Tuesday morning from his home in Lumberton, north of Beaumont.
“We have churches ranging from the coast to almost 50 miles inland from the coast, much of it low elevation,” he said. “If there is a need here, we know that SBDR is ready to respond.”
Before each storm he emails surveys to network churches, asking them to report after the storm any damage, assess their needs and confirm whether they can assist DR efforts.
“That gives us a quick assessment overall that we can pass along to our disaster relief partners in terms of where to kind of begin their assessments and their work,” Turbo said.
Area residents are already overwhelmed by disasters.
“For us it’s not just COVID,” he said. “It’s Harvey, and Imelda, and right before Imelda we had a major chemical plant explosion that affected many of our churches and damaged many homes. And so you throw that into the mix. And quite honestly, of all of those burdens, COVID has been the easiest to navigate even though it has extended to a long season.”
Turbo said Laura reminds many of September 2005’s Hurricane Rita, which devastated the area. Many are praying “may this not be as bad as Rita.”
Pastor Kerry Wright at First Baptist Church of Vidor, Texas, said it feels like his church has been in recovery mode the past 15 years.
“Our church has been through so much here, Rita, and [2008’s Hurricane] Ike, and Imelda and Harvey … and then we worked with Katrina … and we’ve had some other floods in the area since then,” Wright said. “For the last 15 years it has been nothing but recovery, and our church still does not have all of its facilities from Imelda.”
Imelda damaged First Baptist Vidor’s worship center and education space, and repairs were interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. In Orange County, the congregation is under a mandatory evacuation. The church is limited to two buildings on its Orange County campus near Sabine Lake. During Hurricane Harvey, about 200 people were trapped four days in the church when it served as a shelter during extended rainfall, Wright said.
Orange County is “bordered by Sabine Lake, the Neches River to the west and then the Sabine River going into Louisiana on the east,” he said. “We kind of have rivers and a lake to our south and west, and that’s what makes things so bad for us, is that when all those things back up there’s no place for the rain and all that to drain to. So we have trouble with flooding.”
Monday, the church filled sandbags to place on church property and give to members, and planned to communicate with church members Tuesday to discuss individual needs and evacuation plans. For members who are unable to evacuate to relatives’ homes, Wright plans to direct them to a shelter at First Baptist Church of Mount Enterprise, Texas, a partnering congregation about 150 miles north.
The Galveston Baptist Association, comprising about 40 churches in southeast Texas, is also under a mandatory evacuation. The National Hurricane Center has predicted a storm surge of 6-9 feet in the area.
“We will have storm surge issues on the east side of the county,” association Executive Director Jim Grant said Wednesday. He has been in contact with the 4B Disaster Response Network, described on its website as “serving churches from the Beltway to the Beach and the Bay to Brazoria County,” which will mobilize after the storm. “Right now, it’s wait and see,” he said.
Laura is expected to spark flash flooding and heavy rains as it curves inland, moving northeastward through the middle Mississippi, lower Ohio and Tennessee valleys Friday night and Saturday, according to the National Hurricane Center.
In Texas, First Baptist Vidor was praying Monday for a miracle.
“We’re just hoping and praying. We do believe that the Lord’s answered prayer,” Wright said, referring to Tropical Storm Marco that progressively weakened before easing ashore at the mouth of the Mississippi River Monday evening. Marco and Laura, positioned concurrently in the Gulf and headed towards the Louisiana/Texas coastline, created a weather event forecasters said had not occurred since the 1950s.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Diana Chandler is Baptist Press’ senior writer.)