Volunteers muck out homes flooded by Hurricane Isaac

Mennonite Disaster Service volunteers help storm survivors

BY EMILY WILL | BRAITHWAITE, LA | September 18, 2012

A MDS volunteer shows some mud-covered kitchen items to homeowner, Gary Migues, for him to choose what is thrown away and what is kept.
Credit: MDS

The place Gary Migues, his brother and 87-year-old mother call home was once part of a plantation named “The Promised Land,” a title Migues asserts the locale lives up to. At least it did so before Hurricane Isaac raged through on August 29.

The home rests on some 18 acres along a rural finger of land between the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico, on the east bank of Louisiana’s Plaquemines Parish. It’s a land of rich alluvial soil in which citrus trees and garden vegetables thrive, with abundant wildlife, a subtropical climate, ocean breezes and plentiful seafood. It enjoys a multicultural heritage and a very low crime rate, Migues says.

While the 62-year-old Migues still loves his corner of the planet, some of its luster has dulled. His home escaped Hurricane Katrina in 2005 with minimal damage. With Hurricane Isaac, however, 12 feet of ocean water rushed in, destroying the home’s lower level and injuring the hardwood floors of the second.

Now residing in a camper at a relative’s home in New Orleans, Migues, a security guard for the parish, arrived at his cherished home on September 11 with a heavy heart.

Soon a contingent of six Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) volunteers from Lancaster County, PA, appeared. They came at the request of Steve Bledsoe, Migues’s brother and chair of the Committee for Plaquemines Recovery.

Bledsoe, a paramedic and first responder, braved Isaac’s fierce winds and rapidly rising water to rescue a neighbor and his dogs. As Bledsoe thought of recovery, he recalled the work of MDS post-Katrina. He left a message with MDS Disaster Response Coordinator Jerry Klassen saying, “Where are the Mennonites? We need you now.”

Arriving at the flooded home, the volunteers donned tall rubber boots and Tyvek suits. They slogged through inches of heavy muck to clear out the mishmash of desecrated, mostly ruined belongings.

As they carted away pots of dead plants, Migues’s spirits fell even lower. The plants had been part of a rainforest garden he had created as a “special refuge” for his mother. In a porch area under the canopy of a giant oak tree draped in Spanish moss, Migues had groomed massive pots of bromeliads and other flowering plants, including six varieties of Plumeria, the “lei plant,” mail-ordered from Hawaii. Isaac’s salt water killed them.

Within hours the volunteers had cleared the debris and shoveled the mud from the narrow veranda. Next came the interior belongings, some family heirlooms. The volunteers, part of a group of Amish young adults, asked Migues which items he wanted to keep.

Knowing Migues loves to cook, one volunteer asked him if he wished to keep some mud-caked Pyrex ovenware. When Migues said yes, the young man sincerely said, “I wish I could be washing them for you now as we go.” (Power and water service had not yet been restored.)

Such sensitivity on the volunteer’s part, as well as their hard work, helped pull Migues from his melancholy. His morale rose as the hours wore on. Two days later, with the ground level stripped clean—a fire truck hosed out the last mud remnants—Migues said, “It’s beginning to look like something again.”

“I can’t express how humble and grateful I feel for the volunteers, their kindness and genuineness,” Migues said. “They really help a person when a person is down. They lift the spirits.”

Yet Migues and his neighbors on Plaquemines Parish’s east bank remain uncertain about rebuilding for the long term. Their 18-mile stretch of gulf-side levee was overtopped by Hurricane Isaac. Their hope is that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will replace the parish levee with one that meets the Corps’ standards, as it did for other area levees following Hurricane Katrina. The assurance of a well-built levee will help them regain confidence in their Promised Land.

MDS will continue to respond in the area by cleaning out the flooded homes, and will also monitor for possible rebuilding efforts there in the future.

Mennonite Disaster Service is a volunteer network of Anabaptist churches that responds in Christian love to those affected by disasters in Canada and the United States. While the main focus is on clean up, repair and rebuilding homes, this service touches lives and nurtures hope, faith and wholeness.

Contact: Barbara Weaver

(717) 735-3536

[email protected]

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