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After Katrina, Rita Added to Gulf Coast's Woes

Nothing in his 55 years prepared Mike McLaurin for the devastation from Hurricane Rita.

By Elisabeth Stagg

Photo Gallery: The Aftermath of Hurricane Rita

 

By the time their son, Andy, a meteorologist in Lafayette, La., alerted them that Hurricane Rita would make landfall in less than 48 hours, the Rev. Mike McLaurin and his wife, LuAn, were ready for another storm-generated exodus.


 . Rev. Mike McLaurin, pastor of University United Methodist Church in Lake Charles, La.

Early that Thursday morning of Sept. 22, the couple had begun boarding up their Lake Charles, La., home, the first house they had owned after years of living in parsonages. Then they had attended to last-minute preparations at University United Methodist Church, where McLaurin, who has served local churches in the Louisiana Annual Conference for almost 30 years, is the senior pastor.

Once before, when Hurricane Lili threatened in 2002, they had made these same preparations and joined an exodus fleeing the Gulf Coast. That time they had been lucky: Lili turned east, away from Lake Charles. This time, they hoped, they would be just as fortunate.

Loaded into their sedan were three days of clothing, food, and water; boxes filled with important documents; and their aging pets: a 16-year-old cat and a 15-year-old Labrador retriever.

A 15-Hour Drive

At 8 p.m. that evening the McLaurins left their home, traveling along the same evacuation route they had taken for Lili in ’02. Heading north on U.S. 171, traffic crept. The usual one-hour drive to DeRidder took more than five hours. They stopped for a quick breakfast in Shreveport at 6:30 a.m., and then continued to Fort Worth, where they joined LuAn’s family and their daughter, a senior at Texas Christian University. The normally six-and-half-hour trip had taken 15 hours. 

Safe with family, the McLaurins watched television coverage of the storm. “It was amazing and scary to watch the force of the winds and waves,” said McLaurin. “We had made peace that our home might not be there when we returned. That was OK. After all, we are to love people, but we are to only enjoy things. “

One of their few comforts was seeing the familiar face of one of their parishioners on television. Lake Charles' mayor Randy Roach, whom McLaurin praises for the city’s preparedness, was televised during frequent reports as Rita pummeled the Gulf Coast.

By Saturday morning, McLaurin was e-mailing parishioners. Soon, he had responses—from New Orleans, Jackson, Nashville, Little Rock, Shreveport, Tulsa, San Antonio and beyond. “What joy we shared over everyone's safety,” he says.

When divinity classmate Larry Hays of Bethel United Methodist Church in Spartanburg, S.C., e-mailed his concern and offered to send a mission team, McLaurin says he “was overwhelmed by the concern and love that was conveyed. The internet was certainly a welcome tool.” 

After worshipping on Sunday with LuAn’s family, McLaurin phoned a neighbor who had remained in Lake Charles. Miraculously, the phone worked. His neighbor reported that damage to the McLaurin’s home was fairly light: some shingles were missing, many tree limbs were broken; one tree had fallen. Their church had not fared as well: missing shingles led to significant water damage throughout the building.

The McLaurins’ three days worth of provisions turned out to be far from adequate. The evacuation dragged on, until finally, after 11 long days, the couple was able to drive home to Lake Charles.

A Devastated Landscape

During the weeks before Rita, McLaurin had volunteered at shelters for Katrina evacuees from New Orleans. “I think that had helped prepare me mentally and spiritually for Rita,” he says “But nothing in my 55 years prepared me for the devastation I witnessed driving home through southeast Texas and southwest Louisiana.”

In the aftermath of the storm, there are many things McLaurin misses. “I miss most the four dear parishioners who evacuated, but due to illness and storm stress, died before they could return home. I miss our dog, Abbey, who died a few weeks after our return due to the stress of the evacuation and age. I miss the favorite restaurants that will not reopen.”

But there have been blessings. “Our church’s sister congregation in Russia, Good News United Methodist Church of Moscow, e-mailed their prayerful concerns. The number of relief workers who have been here and continue to come from all over the U.S. is staggering!” 

McLaurin has assisted the Lake Charles Ministry Network for Disaster Recovery, a faith-based long-term recovery committee. This ecumenical group, with representatives from Catholic, Presbyterian, Christian, Southern Baptist, Lutheran, Episcopal Church, Assembly of God, Pentecostal and other churches, coordinates the sharing of information and resources.

An undamaged room of McLaurin’s church is housing an UMCOR (United Methodist Committee on Relief) funded Storm Relief Station of case managers and construction managers who, for the next five years, will help hurricane victims work with volunteer teams. He serves on the group’s advisory board.

“This response strongly reaffirms for me the goodness of God working through God's people,” says McLaurin. “God's present and future triumph is seen all the more.”   

 

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