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Louisiana Churches Play Role in Rescue Effort

As rescue and relief efforts continue in New Orleans, displaced residents are coping as best they can, often with the help of small private organizations such as churches. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on how a local congregation is helping out.

Pastor Larry Spencer of the Oaks Community Church says the power went out in this Baton Rouge neighborhood at four o'clock in the morning the night of the hurricane. A few hours later, with news of devastation in New Orleans, the host of a local radio program issued a challenge.

"He challenged churches to kind of open up their doors," said Pastor Spencer. "At his challenge, at about eight o'clock in the morning, I called my people together, even though we didn't have electricity, and said, hey your guys, there's a need to open a shelter. Let's open it."

Churches around the city did the same, giving food and shelter to displaced residents, or offering food and beds to rescue workers. Oaks Community Church housed, fed and showered 125 evacuees each night.

The pastor says volunteers put in long hours. Late one night, a bus arrived with 65 employees from Charity Hospital in New Orleans, one of the last institutions in the city to close its doors. The hospital patients safely evacuated, the workers left themselves. They were turned away, however, from the busy New Orleans airport. They started driving, unsure where they were headed, pulling off the highway near the church.

"We were walking out of the church to go home because we're dead tired, and they said, hey, can we please stay here," added Pastor Spencer. "We said, yeah. So we opened up our auditorium. Sixty-five people came in. We organized them. We fed them. We got them all showers, and I think I got home at 2:30 or three o'clock that morning."

That was one of many late nights for the pastor and church workers. As the immediate crisis passed, they turned their attention to finding long-term housing for the evacuees.

"We have found permanent housing for probably in the neighborhood of 200 to 250 people for two to four months. In fact, with some up to nine months and a year," he noted.

Mr. Spencer says now comes the difficult task of helping evacuees regain some sense of normalcy. The hurricane struck at the start of the school year, and displaced families faced the challenge of finding new schools for their children. Some in Baton Rouge will attend Calvary Christian School, which the church operates.

"Pastor and I decided that the best ministry that we could offer from our school was to see how many students we could handle here at Calvary Christian," said Wendell Douglas, the school administrator. "And our teachers, our faculty and staff have been so gracious and said this is the capacity of our classroom. And we've accepted as many as we could physically fit."

Wednesday, the school enrolled 25 new students, and Mr. Douglas expected 15 to 20 new students Thursday.

The father of one says his flooded house in suburban New Orleans is mostly drained of water, but the evacuee, Philip Culotta, has no idea what will happen to his home. He and his wife and two children are staying in Baton Rouge with an uncle, and he says the uncertainty is the hardest thing to cope with.

"That's the major problem right now as far as making decisions, with jobs, with moving away, and going to school," he said.

Mr. Culotta, a sales engineer, says his job will probably be relocated. He does not know where. He says his company may move its offices to somewhere else in Louisiana, or maybe to Texas.

An evacuated mother who is enrolling her children in Calvary Christian School, Royliene Johnson, lived in an old part of New Orleans near the famous French Quarter. She knows from news reports that her street is still flooded. She is also staying with family members in Baton Rouge, and she says it is crowded.

"Yeah, about 15 people and one bathroom, but we're surviving," she said. "We got through the storm, and we have a dwelling to be in, and we're together. And that was the best part."

Some have not been so lucky. An unknown number of families have lost loved ones, and Pastor Spencer says churches like his are here to help.

Outside the pastor's office, a secretary responds to people calling with offers of assistance.

SECRETARY: "[We need] any type of mattresses, bedding of any sort - air mattresses, regular mattresses, that can help."

These church workers say Red Cross officials who visited their make-shift relief center complimented them, saying that even formal disaster training would not have prepared them better for the job. The volunteers say they are relying on faith, and the generosity of their members and the local community, to help those affected by the disaster.