March 15, 2022
Louisiana residents trying to recover from 18 months of weather disasters are benefiting from a unique partnership formed by United Methodist, Mennonite and Amish communities to help with recovery and rebuilding efforts in storm-ridden Lake Charles.
The coalition consists of the Louisiana Conference of The United Methodist Church, Mennonite Disaster Service and Fuller Center Disaster ReBuilders, a Christian nonprofit organized in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The group helps those who have no other means to repair their storm-damaged homes.
Western Louisiana in particular has endured a string of weather events that has made recovery difficult. From August 2020 to September 2021, the area was hit by Hurricanes Laura, Delta and Ida, a winter freeze and a local flood caused by over 12 inches of rain. All of this happened during the coronavirus pandemic, which hampered the work of volunteer teams.
“For 16-18 months, only what [people] could do within the community is what got done,” said Bill Howell, director of Missional Engagement and Outreach for the Louisiana Conference. He helps oversee the conference’s disaster relief work.
Howell, retired from the chemical and energy industries, was training to become a missionary before COVID-19 emerged. The pandemic prevented his Volunteers in Mission team from a work trip to the Caribbean, so he contacted the Louisiana Conference to arrange a trip there instead.
He said he certainly wasn’t seeking a job, but “somehow my résumé got into the hands of the bishop and here I am. It’s all been God stuff.”
In November 2021, Howell found an ally in Phil Helmuth, volunteer coordinator for Mennonite Disaster Service and equally bad at retirement — Helmuth said he and Howell have “five failed retirements” between them.
“We drove through the city and there was no one working here, yet you have blue tarps and disaster all over,” Helmuth said. “COVID created a bottleneck in terms of response. The way things were in November 2020 is the way they were in November 2021; nothing had changed.”
Each group has a different responsibility. The Louisiana Conference handles case management and helps with some funding through the United Methodist Committee on Relief. Mennonite Disaster Service provides the Amish work teams. Fuller Center handles permitting and materials, and connects members with local subcontractors.
With contractors in high demand and short supply, those with either insurance money or personal means to pay them were given a priority. The uninsured and renters fell through the cracks, and this is where the coalition steps in.
“Homeowners have tried themselves to do some repairs, and we’ve had to come behind them,” Howell said. “They’ve had no help, just trying to do what they could do.”
Work crews rotate out every two weeks. Many come by bus from Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania, and they stay at University United Methodist Church in Lake Charles, with church volunteers transporting them, since most Amish don’t drive cars.
“My perception of the Amish has changed so much from what stereotypes you may see on TV. They’re very sociable, they laugh and have fun,” said volunteer Elmer Roach. “The one sad thing is I spend two weeks developing relationships with these people and then they go home.”