Recovery has been painfully slow in Lake Charles, La., which remains a near-ghost town since being struck by two hurricanes last fall and cut off from the aid of faith-based groups due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
And now, with the 2021 hurricane season looming, residents of the Southwestern Louisiana community awash in blue tarps and vacant buildings are concerned that time may be against them, said Samuel C. Tolbert Jr., pastor of Greater St. Mary Missionary Baptist Church in Lake Charles and president of the National Baptist Convention of America.
“The story of what happened here just gets older as time goes by, and we are worried that as other natural disasters happen, this one will be forgotten,” Tolbert said.
But Lake Charles is far from forgotten, said Rick Burnette, disaster response coordinator for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
Relationships were forged with Tolbert and NBCA immediately after Hurricane Laura ravaged the coastal community Aug. 27 and CBF hired a local response coordinator a month before Hurricane Delta made landfall in October.
“We have the infrastructure and relationships in place. We are ready to start recovery work in Lake Charles,” Burnette said.
Up to the present, that work has been impeded by the coronavirus outbreak. Church-based volunteer teams that normally would have swarmed into the area immediately after the storms were blocked by government travel restrictions and by a lack of safe housing and work conditions in the affected area.
“Everyone has been stuck in the mud for a while, and it’s been very frustrating. But now is the time for action as vaccinations roll out,” Burnette said.
A team from a Kentucky church is scheduled to arrive in Lake Charles for a one-week visit on April 11. It will be the first CBF team to arrive in the city since the hurricane.
“They are coming with skills and will be working on windows and doors and whatever else they are directed to do. And every member of the team has gotten their shots,” he said. “We are getting more inquiries, and I hope this primes the pump.”
But challenges remain. Visiting teams that typically pay for and bring their own construction materials are likely to face shortages of key items needed to get Lake Charles back on its feet — especially as faith-based groups and private contractors respond to other natural disasters this year. “Everyone is going to need shingles and other basic materials, and that really worries me. I think it could be difficult finding the materials needed for Lake Charles,” Burnette said.
What’s not a concern is inspiring church commitments to the Lake Charles project. CBF volunteer teams have a proven track record of forging relationships within the communities they visit and serve and repeatedly returning — often on their own initiative.
“While we are bracing for the worst, we have a good model of engagement through CBF churches and we have a good system in place for coordinating those teams and lining their talents up with what needs doing,” he said.
And there is plenty that needs doing, said Tolbert.
“Folks here have been trying to get repairs done on their own, but they face great challenges. Many of them are having difficulties with insurance companies that are underpaying them, and it is hard to find contractors to get work done,” he explained. “In some cases, contractors have taken money and not shown up. We still have a lot of blue tarps on residences, businesses and churches.”
“We still have a lot of blue tarps on residences, businesses and churches.”
Tolbert’s own church suffered much damage that remains unrepaired. “We can’t go in it because of mold, and the water damage disclosed issues with lead and asbestos.”
The absence of church volunteer teams has caused a great deal of stress in the community, much of which is living out of town until help arrives, Tolbert added. But many have maintained a positive outlook, nonetheless.
“Lake Charles and Southwest Louisiana had four natural disasters in the past 12 months: a pandemic, two hurricanes and an ice storm a few weeks ago. But our outlook is bright because we see God getting us through this and totally sustaining us.”