24 of us just returned from a week’s work in hurricane battered New Orleans. We left Sarasota at 5:30 am on Monday and arrived in the Big Easy around 8:30 that evening. Over 200 volunteers were assembled for evening devotional led by Tim Hines. The singing was quite good, especially for those of us that had driven all day to get there. Groups were there from Texas, Kentucky, Georgia, and Florida. We were all there for the same reason, to help get families get back on their feet.
Tim heads up Hilltop Rescue and Relief, a church of Christ disaster response team, located in the St. Bernard Parrish. It is quite the operation, from logistics to support, Hilltop has got it. Hilltop was given the use of an elementary school by the St. Bernard Parrish council and it has been converted into a command center for the volunteer operation. Classrooms have been converted into sleeping quarters with cots to sleep on and air conditioning to help ease the pain of the New Orleans heat and humidity. A large room has been converted into a cafeteria and assembly hall, another the kitchen. Other rooms serve as showers, laundry room, and storage rooms.
Hilltop has received thousands of dollars worth of food and equipment for the clean-up effort. Trailers carry wheel barrels, shovels, rakes, sledge hammers, crow bars, hoes, and other tools to the work sites. Volunteers stay to cook 2 hot meals a day and bread, meat, and snacks are provided to take lunches to the job sites. Just about anything you can imagine that you would need is there and the volunteers who help run this program are amazing.
Days start out at 6:00 when wake-up takes place. 6:30 -7:20 is breakfast and morning devo starts promptly at 7:30. At 8:00 you are given your work orders along with a map. Finding your site is one of the hardest things you will encounter since nearly all of the road signs have been blown away from the storm. But with some creativity and imagination, along with some graffiti on houses, addresses to the work sites can be found. Owners of the houses are there waiting for you, which is a neat experience, and something none of us will soon forget. Hearing their stories really helps put everything into perspective as you get ready for the very hard work ahead of you.
They call it de-mucking. The term does not do justice to what you are about to do. It is the hardest work I think I have ever done in my entire life. De-mucking means going into a house and removing all of the contents that are in it that were destroyed and ruined by the storm. We worked in St. Bernard Parrish where over 27,000 homes sat under 5’ to 9’ of water for over 3 weeks. Literally everything inside the homes were ruined by the water and wind. And, to make it worse, the houses that we worked in had been left untouched for nearly 9 months after the storm had hit.
You can only imagine the condition of the houses when we entered them. The floor was covered in a thick, gooey black mud that was 6” to 12” deep. It was given the name “poop mud,” for obvious reasons, and it was a nightmare. We had to force our way into the houses and begin shoveling the mud out of the door openings just to be able to get into the houses to get to the wet and moldy furniture, paintings, dishes, clothes, bedding, etc. Room by room we would go clearing out all of the belongings, looking for anything that might still be salvaged. The heat was sweltering and the smell was almost unbearable. And we found a lot of bugs living in all of the muck.
Literally a mountain of trash accumulated outside the house by the road of each house we worked (we worked on 6 houses while we were there). We had to separate bio hazards, such as paint and batteries, in one pile, electronic devices in another. Appliances had their own pile too, with everything else going into the pile we called “mount trashmore.” Then came the task of breaking away all of the drywall from the house and pulling out all of the nails that held it in place.
Needless to say we took a lot of water breaks during the day to stay hydrated. It was extremely hot and humid and Hilltop provided lots of purified drinking water for us. Each of us drank a gallon or more a day. By the end of the day we hardly had the strength to go back to Hilltop for a shower. Dinner was from 6:00 till 7:00 and we ended the day with a devotional from 7:30 till 8:30. Lights went out promptly at 10:30 (and not a complaint from the group!). Sleep was what we all desired more than anything and 10:30 couldn’t come fast enough.
I have to admit I was quite proud of our team. We had a wide age range, from those who just finished 6th grade to our senior leader, Jim, who at 68 worked us all under the table. We had more girls than guys and the girls certainly held their own. But we left New Orleans with a feeling of accomplishment, a realization that we really did make a difference while we were there. Not only did we see Jesus at work in the attitudes and hard work of those around us, we showed Jesus to the families that we helped. And that was awesome to say the least. If you would like to find out more about Hilltop Rescue and Relief go check it out at their website at www.hilltoprescue.org . Maybe you, or somebody you know, would like to go and volunteer some time there. Believe me, we left plenty of work behind for others to do.