The devastating floods that swamped parts of Louisiana last month, particularly in and around Baton Rouge, inspired several churches and agencies in Gainesville and Hall County to respond with the same devotion they give to their home communities.
“At first, we thought this was only about helping people clean up the damage,” Gainesville Councilman George Wangemann said. “But it becomes a spiritual experience in the sense that you strengthen your relationship with God.”
Wangemann and members the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Gainesville got the call from the central Mormon church in Salt Lake City and responded with a team of volunteers and supplies.
“I thought I don’t know what I’d do (in a similar situation),” Wangemann said. “It’s like losing a loved one.”
The group from Gainesville took one of the longest trips of any affiliated group, logging 587 miles to Louisiana last weekend to support the clean-up efforts.
After they arrived, Wangemann said the watermarks left by the flood, rising four to five feet on most homes, were obvious
“When we got inside the homes, it was just devastation,” he added. “It was almost unbearable.”
Wangemann said the Mormon church has dispatched some 20,000 volunteers over the last four weekends to south-central Louisiana, where an estimated 150,000 homes were ravaged by the floodwaters, according to the Associated Press.
At least 13 people were killed and early estimates place the damages at $8.7 billion.
More than 26 inches of rain fell in one week, with nearly a foot in just one day, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Using two different sets of measurements and computer model runs simulating thousands of years, NOAA scientists found a clear sign of global warming in the rain that triggered the flooding.
The scientists concluded that climate change turned a once-every-50-year situation somewhere on the Gulf to a once-every-30-year-or-less situation.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has distributed more than $202 million in individual assistance aid to flood victims.
Purposes for the grants and loans vary but may include emergency housing repairs, temporary housing or other disaster-related expenses.
Hall County Fire Services has also joined the cause. It is partnering with Straight Street Revolution Ministries to assist victims of the flooding.
The agency is gathering donations and supplies to make another trip this month.
“The main purpose of this trip is to provide and hang sheetrock in two homes occupied by elderly couples who do not have flood insurance and provide assistance to 18 local firefighters affected by the flood,” Hall Fire spokesman Capt. Zachary Brackett said.
Gainesville First United Methodist also prepared a trailer of supplies provided by Syfan Logistics.
For Wangemann, his efforts with the Mormon church are a continuation of years of responding to natural disasters, dating back to Hurricane Andrew, which demolished parts of South Florida in the early 1990s.
Working with a 20-person team, Wangemann said he wore masks and goggles to protect against black mold and a wicked smell when helping gut the homes, remove sheetrock and dispose of all destroyed belongings - from furniture and appliances to picture frames and children’s toys.
It took 10 hours to finish one home. camaraderie in the group, in the sacrifice, in the serving
Wangemann said the homeowner, a woman in her 50’s who felt like a long-lost sister, was grateful for the assistance.
“She said she saw it coming because the rains were so heavy,” he said. “She thanked us for coming.”
Wangemann added that the church group shared prayer with the homeowner, which was a “sweet experience.”
Helping to restore her home and sense of place is not to be taken lightly, and Wangemann wants everyone to know that the work continues to rebuild homes and lives.
“There’s still more help on the way,” he added.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.