Rapid relief offered

The Rev. Doug DeGraffenried ignored the mandatory evacuation order.

BY CHUCK HUSTMYRE | LAKE CHARLES, La. | September 29, 2005

"We want to get back to normal as soon as possible, and normal means church services and Sunday school."

—Rev. Doug DeGraffenried

As Hurricane Rita bore down on southwest Louisiana last week, at one point packing winds of 175 miles per hour, the Rev. Doug DeGraffenried ignored the mandatory evacuation order and rode the storm out in his church.

"Leaving was never really an option," DeGraffenried said. "I decided that basically I was going to represent Christ come hell or high water."

Emergency response officials and church leaders nationwide discourage people from ignoring evacuation orders. Thousands of lives are lost during disasters when people who can leave choose to stay.

Fortunately for DeGraffenried, the First Methodist Church of Lake Charles is known as one of the safest buildings in town. The walls - made of cinderblock, brick and steel - are 18 inches thick. The sanctuary, built in 1928, sits atop a spacious basement, a haven of last resort should the wind breach the walls or roof.

The pastor, his wife Tamara, 20-year-old son Andrew, church maintenance supervisor Steve Landry, and five dogs - two labs and three dachshunds - hunkered down inside the fortress-like church as Rita's winds whipped across Lake Charles.

During the height of the storm, DeGraffenried and Landry stepped outside to watch its fury. Landry saw the 100-plus mile per hour winds bend and twist the huge oak trees that surround the church. "The trees looked like they were trying to unscrew from the ground," he said.

The wind ripped several of the oaks from the soil, shattered windows and launched tiles from the church roof. It snapped nearby pine trees and telephone poles in half.

Flying debris kills countless people during hurricanes and other disasters. Fortunately, DeGraffenried and Landry were unharmed. DeGraffenried said he took it all in stride. "We were never really in danger," he said.

Before Rita, DeGraffenried and his staff were caring for evacuees who had fled Hurricane Katrina. "We were doing Katrina relief efforts and then they evacuated the evacuees," he said.

In the four days since Rita struck, DeGraffenried, his family and Steve Landry have been living at the church. They have two generators working and have managed to post messages on the church's Web site. They ran a surviving fax line to a telephone and now have a working phone number. Congregation members have been calling in and asking about the condition of their homes. Landry and the pastor have checked at least a dozen houses and Landry has been removing downed trees from some of them.

Wednesday, DeGraffenried was expecting truckloads of relief supplies from the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR). The church will serve as a distribution point for the supplies and give them to anyone who needs help.

As he waited for the truck to arrive, DeGraffenried was also trying to figure out how to get 55 gallons of gas out of a drum and into smaller gas cans. The idea of sucking it through a hose didn't appeal to him. Then someone suggested jury-rigging an aquarium pump to do the job. "We're like Apollo 13," DeGraffenried said. "We don't want to know what it was designed to do; we want to know what it can do."

Although emergency management officials have estimated that it may take a month or more to get the power back on in Lake Charles, DeGraffenried said he isn't going to wait that long to get the church back into its regular routine. "We want to get back to normal as soon as possible, and normal means church services and Sunday school," he said.

DeGraffenried knows that as his congregation returns, they're going to need help. He has scheduled his first post-Rita worship service for Sunday.

All around Lake Charles, other church groups were also helping.

A block from the emergency operations center, a group from Healing Place Church in Baton Rouge, La., was serving food to emergency personnel, relief workers and anyone else who needed a hot meal. "We probably had a line of 100 people from the neighborhood this morning," church member Billy Yelverton said. Yelverton estimated that the group, called Cooking for Christ, served about 1,000 meals Wednesday.

The group is part of the Pastors Resource Council, a Baton Rouge-based coalition of non-denominational churches and pastors that also brings volunteer work crews to disaster-stricken areas to help clear trees and make emergency repairs to homes.

In another part of town, The Salvation Army and Southern Baptist Convention have teamed up to feed thousands more. A Southern Baptist Disaster Relief Team from Ocala, Fla., set up a mobile kitchen unit in the parking lot of an abandoned grocery store Sunday afternoon, the day after the storm. Relief teams started serving meals on Monday. The disaster team cooks the meals and gives them to The Salvation Army for delivery to area shelters.

Team leader Dick Leonard said that on Wednesday the mobile kitchen cooked more than 11,000 meals.

"They cook it, we serve it," said Salvation Army Captain Tim Meyer.

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