For the first time during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship has issued a call for volunteers to assist with disaster recovery efforts.
The Sept. 16 invitation asks for teams to help Lake Charles, La. recover from damage caused by Hurricane Laura, which made landfall Aug. 27.
Previously during the outbreak, the Fellowship provided financial support and encouraged donations to local ministries and churches in areas impacted by hurricanes and high COVID-19 rates. These include parts of Texas and Mexico hit by Hurricane Hanna in July and the Bahamas and Puerto Rico, which are still recovering from storms in previous years.
“There were situations where it’s just a no-go,” said Rick Burnette, the Fellowship’s domestic disaster response manager.
But Lake Charles was a go, he explained, because of downward-trending infections coupled with urgent requests for help from CBF Louisiana and the National Baptist Convention of America, which has a strong presence in the region.
Burnette said volunteer teams will be required to adhere to strict health protocols, including wearing masks and practicing physical distancing.
Persons under 18 and over 70 are prohibited from participating, as are those who have been in large groups of people 14 days before their service event, CBF guidelines state.
Safety is being taken seriously, Burnette added. “Because infection rates have seemed to ease and we have strong guidelines, we are recruiting volunteers. But if there is a spike, this can always be paused.”
Organizers already are seeing interest. CBF Louisiana Coordinator Kyle Kelley said churches in Texas and Louisiana have reached out, and Burnette said inquiries have been made by churches in Mississippi.
A group from North Carolina is planning to come, and “there is one American Baptist church from Connecticut that has reached out,” he said.
Cleanup is the current need, and teams will need chainsaws and brushes, among other tools, he said. Tarps also would be helpful to dry-in properties soaked in the storm. “We don’t know how accessible building materials are going to be.”
But there have been potentially complicating developments.
Mold was discovered at Greater St. Mary Missionary Baptist Church in Lake Charles, which had been tapped as a staging area for operations and for housing visiting teams, Burnette said. The facility, like the rest of Lake Charles, has been without power since the hurricane blew through the area.
Alternative locations are being sought. “We might find a smaller, outlying church with power and enough room to spread out and sleep,” Burnette said. “In those cases, we could bring in a shower trailer. We’re exploring all our options.”
Another development was a very wet Hurricane Sally, which came ashore at the Alabama-Florida state line on Sept. 16.
CBF Florida’s Disaster Response Coordinator Kenny Phillips is currently canvassing the area to determine if there is enough damage to warrant sending volunteer teams.
“If there is, we’ll evaluate a shifted response,” Burnette said. “And if the stars align, there is a small CBF church in Fort Walton Beach that could serve as a hub.”
But volunteers may be roughing it a bit more than usual in Lake Charles, he said. “Any team that wants to go down there, they will have to be creative. What we’re saying is, please come down, but please come down carefully.”
CBF also announced the hiring of La’Conya Ceasar as the local response coordinator for recovery efforts in Lake Charles. Burnette said she was strongly recommended by Samuel C. Tolbert Jr., NBCA president and pastor of Greater St. Mary Missionary Baptist Church.
Ceasar “has both the local knowledge and network needed to handle response logistics and to host volunteer teams,” Burnette said in CBF’s announcement.
The work in Louisiana is being tackled by a collaboration between the Fellowship, including state groups, and NBCA.
Tolbert, Burnette, Kelley and CBF of Mississippi Coordinator Jason Coker have met in Lake Charles to map out strategies for the city’s recovery.
“It’s so dynamic what we have with CBF and NBCA,” Burnette said. “We have a lot of people who care.”
Contributions to CBF Disaster Response may be made online.