Hurricanes can happen wherever there’s a coastline

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 27, 2013

Members of the Bogalusa Rotary Club heard from Greg Whaley on Tuesday as he recounted the efforts of the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief agency when it responded to the devastation left behind by Hurricane Sandy on New York’s Staten Island.

Whaley, minister of music at First Baptist Church in Bogalusa, gave a brief history of the organization, which began in Texas and has now grown into the third largest disaster relief agency in the country behind only the Red Cross and the Salvation Army. The agency is a part of the North American Mission Board within the Southern Baptist Convention, created to help people in times of urgent need, whether it be hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, ice storms or any other type of disaster where people need help.

According to Whaley, while the SBDR agency was on Staten Island it was they who cooked the meals, more than a million of them, while the Red Cross delivered those meals.

“We were the ones behind the scene taking care of that,” said Whaley. “In fact, the New York Times said of the agency, ‘with the ability to feed 20,000 people from one local kitchen and a chain of command that is so tightly run it would make a military officer proud, the Southern Baptist teams are the backbone of disaster relief here.’”

Continuing, Whaley said the group goes all over the country, and Washington Parish has its own disaster response unit comprised of men and women trained in chain saw, mud-out, feeding units, shower units, chaplaincy and more.

“We have responded to floods here in the parish and beyond,” Whaley said, “and hurricanes, ice storms in Illinois and Missouri, tornadoes in Alabama and all across the country in the years since Hurricane Katrina.”

The unit was established soon after Katrina, he said.

For Hurricane Sandy, Whaley said, “We were called out, activated, and we were stationed on Staten Island. It was a two-day trip to get up there, and when we got up there, they put us in a Moravian church.”

He explained that while the South does not have many, if any, Moravian churches, the church representatives told him they are the oldest protestant church in existence.

“We got to stay at their beautiful church. They were very gracious to us, and we were thankful for that,” he said.

The Washington Parish volunteers worked at South Beach on Staten Island, where the waters from the Atlantic Ocean had rushed over and flooded large numbers of houses with 10 to 14 feet of water.

“They are very close together, right on the beach,” said Whaley, “and all of them had basements.

“We were asked to do mud-outs. That’s exactly what it sounds like. We go in and clean all the mud out and everything else,” Whaley said. “Once the water gets into a space, as you probably know, it takes over and destroys everything. So our job was to go into these houses, start in the basement, strip the whole thing down to the studs — all the sheetrock, personal items, fixtures, appliances — all that stuff has to come out.”

The four or five house worked on by parish volunteers had to be stripped in the basement and on the floor above the sheetrock cut 4 feet above the water line to keep the mold from taking over, Whaley said.

“Once we got it completely cleaned out we stacked trash up on the street. The piles that we made were 8 feet high by 6 feet wide and 20 feet long, and we did these piles every day.

“It was very hard work, but it was very good work.”

The trip to Staten Island was the furthest traveled by the team from Washington Parish, said Whaley, and “it was very important to us because they suffered a lot of the ways that we suffered. We didn’t use chain saws like we did here, it was mostly mud-out and cleaning,” he concluded.

As a faith-based organization, the SBDR teams overall came away with 91 professions of faith, 4,793 ministry contacts, more than 35,400 volunteer days, the preparation of 1.8 million meals, more than 1,300 mud-out jobs, and much more, including 1,800 showers and 600 loads of laundry.

“It was dirty work; it was the dirtiest work I’ve ever done in my life,” said Whaley.

“But it was worthy work, because in the midst of that devastation, in the midst of the foul smells and the things that we saw because of the water damage, coupled with that was the ability to talk into somebody’s life; the ability to speak peace and to share Christ, which is what we do. But not just that. To hold their hand with one hand and help them clean up with the other.”

Whaley’s team was able to mud-out five homes, he said, and to interact with a variety of New Yorkers, who, he says, get a bad rap sometimes.

“They were so nice to us and so glad we were there. They were right there, they were upfront with you, they spoke forthrightly and at the same time they embraced you as a helper, as a countryman, and as someone who loves them.

“I never feared for anything at all,” he said.

Southern Baptists have a test, Whaley continued, to define how to interact with others.

“Our test is, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’”

Whaley said that is exactly what the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief agency is all about. He noted that it’s the primary reason he’s involved with the relief agency.

“It’s not because I’m good at it,” he laughed. “I’m the lowest grunt there is. It’s because when we Bogalusans were at our most vulnerable after Hurricane Katrina, the yellow shirts of the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief volunteers shown like little beacons of light and hope around our community, certainly within my heart.

“God used that event in my life to make a substantial difference in how I minister to others. I want to do for others what those first responders did for us, and did for me.

“The Southern Baptist Disaster Relief organization allows me to do that.”