Window to Winn By Bob Holeman

Hurricane Laura dealt havoc to Winn Parish, leaving a tangle of downed trees, damaged homes and a spaghetti mix of wires, broken power poles and transformers that left us without power and in a communication blackout.

            Our home got power back after 10 days but it was two weeks before our internet and TV service was restored.  We then tuned in to see what damage Laura has wrought but found no coverage of a storm that had devastated Louisiana, for she was now two weeks old.  There was scant coverage even of the wildfires that continued to rage along the Pacific west coast.

            Instead the media, both left and right, seemed to focus their airtime on the acts of social and racial hatred that boiled over in a number of metro areas.  They’d like to hold that this is what America is today, a Republic founded on the Judeo-Christian ethic whose wheels have fallen off after some 250 years; a nation that has turned from God and is so flawed with discrimination in that quarter century that it can’t be fixed.

            I’m going to suggest that they’ve got it wrong.  Let me tell you a little about what we saw in Winn Parish following Laura.  I think it may give you a window into the fabric of which the American people really are made.  We saw it after Katrina in 2005.  We’re seeing it after Sally now.  And I’d like to believe we’re seeing it as people reach out to help others in the western fires.

            When the hurricane’s winds had passed, folks didn’t wait on government to solve the problems.  Capable homeowners and loggers alike came out to clear roads alongside first responders where possible so folks could get through.  And they looked for ways to help each other.  A huge tree crushed the home of a police officer not far from us and his neighbors took him into their own home.  Across the parish, neighbors helped others put those familiar blue tarps over damaged roofs and offered other acts to help families impose some order over chaos.  When the National Guard arrived with water, ice and MREs at distribution points, people drove up to carry those supplies to others having difficulty.

            I was touched to see action by one group that some of us might call the “Entitled Generation.” These are young people we’ve labeled as not willing to work toward a goal because they believe they deserve it.  I was proved wrong again when volunteer distribution points for supplies and meals were manned in part by a host of young people.

            Let’s talk for a bit about a strike force of 68 Tennessee volunteers who brought love, hope and tree removal to some 250 home sites here over a two-week period.  A tremendous support team from area churches allowed them to work with minimal interruption.  A third team was planned for an additional week but urgency for help following Hurricane Sally saw that team redirected to the east.

            Ron Thompson, a Baptist Convention missions coordinator from Natchitoches arrived here once roads were passable and communication possible and worked with the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board’s disaster relief team.  The first group of eight arrived from Tennessee just a week after Laura had struck but when they found that First Baptist Church of Winnfield could host 30, the team quickly expanded to 30.  Group Two had 38.

            With two bucket trucks, a tractor, and Bobcat plus power saws, the volunteers daily broke into four teams and went to separate sites based on work orders prepared by a prioritization of requests.  Local volunteers had gone out to assess and prioritize work requests that were called in so that the Tennessee crew could help as many as possible in their limited time here.

            Harold Renfroe of Lexington, one of the youngsters at 62, said that one lady had “two great big trees down on her horse pen.  She had given up, thinking we couldn’t do anything.  But we did.  At the end, we presented her a Bible.  She broke down and cried.  So did we.  She didn’t realize we’d drive down this far to cut up her two trees.  We can’t get over how friendly and appreciative people here are.”

            “It’s not all about roofs and trees and tarps,” Thompson pointed out.  “It’s about the people who live there and their relationship to Christ.  Our team members can’t work and saw trees nonstop.  They take breaks and talk with homeowners.  One of the team has been involved with disaster relief for years and told me this was the first time he’s had to opportunity to lead a man to Christ.”

            Johnny Grimes observed that everyone was appreciative, never expecting more than the team could provide.  When asked how they could repay these volunteers, the answer often would be, “Is there a church nearby you could start attending?”

            “We came to give them hope,” said LaDonna Tucker of Signal Mountain.  “There was a lady, a widow who had no idea what she could do next.  Her trailer had a tree through the middle.  We got the tree out and put a tarp over the trailer.  We also got six big trees out of her yard.  When she got back and saw what we had done, she just sat in her car and cried.”  She hadn’t believed her home would look that whole again.

            David Owens, also of Signal Mountain, echoed that when a storm victim returns from work to find their property cleaned up of the downed trees and debris, they have a feeling of hope after all.  They’d left that morning wondering what their next step would be.

            When the teams show up, perhaps they can’t fix all the damage they encounter but they can give a little hope, Thompson said.  One older gentleman said, “You don’t know how much this means.  It’s a lot that someone cares, remembers and is there to help.”

            An operation like this takes a lot of support and much organization.  First Baptist hosted housing and a meal site for breakfast and dinner.  Thompson said pastors Dr. Jerry Pipes and Danny Keyes responded to any of the team’s requests.  Westside Baptist of Natchitoches provided the mobile kitchen capable for providing 150 to 200 meals.  Many churches provided volunteers, resources and food to assist the visitors.  “The food is great.  I usually gain some weight during these mission projects,” confessed Doyle Pittman of Chattanooga. 

A mobile shower unit was refreshing for the hard-working volunteers while its laundry unit was run nonstop by local volunteers.  Thompson praised the support of sheriff and emergency operations coordinator Cranford Jordan on logistics, information and food for the teams.  The Food Bank and generous cash donations also kept the serving tables loaded.

One of the volunteers carries an experience that allowed him to see Winn’s disaster from a different perspective.  Bill Luttrell was serving as a missionary in the Abaco Islands near Bermuda when Hurricane Dorian struck a year ago.  “After you go through this, you feel defeated, in a mental fog.  You’ve lost everything.  It’s hard to get anything going.  Then someone shows up to give you a little hope.  You can take your first step.”  He returned to the United States once communication was re-established after Dorian.  When he then went back to Abaco, he was one of those able to provide a little hope to those still in the devasted islands.

Of the appreciation Luttrell witnessed here, one comment stands out.  The two teams from Tennessee completed work at 250 sites.  Despite this accomplishment, there are still many more requests in the folder.  One homeowner who’d called in pulled up to the crew on their final day in town and called out, “Even if you don’t get to my house, thank you for what you’re doing for our community.”

On a personal note, when I first heard this disaster relief team was from Tennessee, I wondered about the possibility of any coming from the small town east of Knoxville where my daughter now lives.  Chances were good.  We visited the first crew one evening to discover that eight had traveled from Dandridge, with five of them members of Laura’s home church.  Small world.

That’s my observation.  I feel that what we’ve seen here since August 27 gives a truer representation of what America really is than is portrayal in the media.         

A Tennessee volunteer cuts limbs from a tree that landed on a home during Hurricane Laura
Following breakfast and a devotional, the Tennessee crew breaks into smaller teams and heads out very early each morning.  This is the crew of Week 2
‘Before’ photo shows a tree that has smashed through a trailer
‘After’ shows the trailer as the homeowner saw it later, with the tree removed, trailer tarped and lard cleaned up

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