Rural church among those providing aid after Louisiana flood

Members of the South Walker Baptist Church led by pastor Mark Carroll, center, pray at the conclusion of what is normally a time for Bible study, but which became an informal talk about experiences during the flood in Walker, La., Sunday, Aug. 21, 2016. The church was an island of high ground in a community flooded with 4-5 feet of water a week earlier. During and since the flood the church is serving as a shelter and food distribution point for the community. (AP Photo/Max Becherer)
Flood-damaged pews from the Christian Fellowship Church sit on the roadside for trash pick up in Walker, La., Sunday, Aug. 21, 2016. Hundreds of residents were rescued from flooded homes in the area last Saturday. (AP Photo/Max Becherer)
Flood damaged pews from the Christian Fellowship Church sit on the roadside for trash pick up in Walker, La., Sunday, Aug. 21, 2016. Hundreds of residents were rescued from flooded homes in the area last Saturday. (AP Photo/Max Becherer)
An abandoned boat sits by the side of Walker South Road in Walker, La., Sunday, Aug. 21, 2016. Hundreds of residents were rescued from flooded homes in the area last Saturday. (AP Photo/Max Becherer)

WALKER, La. — Outside the small town of Walker, Louisiana, a rural Baptist church has become an oasis for flood victims.

As waters rose amid torrential rains earlier this month, National Guard rescue crews dropped people off at South Walker Baptist Church because it sits on a ridge of relatively high ground in Livingston Parish near Baton Rouge. Even as flooding has receded in recent days, the church — like many other places across hard-hit south Louisiana — has continued providing sustenance for the body and soul.

It sheltered 96 people in the days after the storm, and Pastor Mark Carroll said the sanctuary is still a dormitory for more than 20 who lost their homes, including a man who had been living in his car until Saturday. It is also housing volunteers who have come to help people rebuild.

With a congregation of about 100 and with help from the community, the church is offering hot meals, running a pantry stocked by donations from around the U.S. and conducting prayer services. Carroll said the church had been planning a revival in about a month, but he believes the storm recovery is making that happen now as people build relationships with each other through God.

"It's been this entire community," Carroll said by phone Sunday. "We couldn't have done anything without everyone, and I mean just about everyone, pitching in."

Chuck Craft, a member of South Walker Baptist, said Sunday that he and his wife, Karen, lost their home about a mile from the church but they've been able to salvage some irreplaceable items such as photos of their four children and 16 grandchildren. He said everyone in their family is safe, and that's the most important thing.

"My story is no different than anybody's down the road," Craft said Sunday. "Everybody's life is out on the curb to be picked up by garbage."

The Baton Rouge area got thunderstorms with at least 2 to 3 inches of rain Sunday, said the National Weather Service, which posted a flash flood warning for part of the day.

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said Sunday that people around the U.S. are just starting to pay attention to the extent of flooding that killed at least 13 people in Louisiana. He told CNN's "State of the Nation" that the disaster has received less attention because it wasn't a hurricane or named storm.

"Typically, by this point in a storm, I think Red Cross would be receiving a lot more donations," Edwards said. "I think there would be more volunteers signing up. Although we have some of that in place now, it would be very helpful if people would donate to the Red Cross, to the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, and also to come in and volunteer to help people get back in their homes as quickly as possible."

Edwards, a Democrat who took office this year, said he suggested to President Barack Obama and presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett that they delay a trip to Louisiana until the initial disaster response was over and recovery efforts had started. Obama is traveling to Baton Rouge on Tuesday.

Edwards also praised Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump's Friday trip to Baton Rouge, saying "it helped to shine a spotlight on Louisiana and on the dire situation that we have here."

Officials are setting up a temporary bus system to help people in and around Baton Rouge whose vehicles were damaged by flooding. The bus service, provided by a private company, will run from downtown Baton Rouge to the towns of Gonzales, Walker, Denham Springs, Central and Geismar. The contract is for one week, but services could be extended if there's a need, state Department of Transportation and Development Secretary Shawn D. Wilson said in a news release.

Mike Steele, spokesman for the Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness, said Sunday that two disaster recovery centers also have opened in areas that flooded in south Louisiana. He says more will open as buildings are found with enough parking and proper access for people with disabilities.

Steele said more than $30 million in federal housing assistance has been approved for residents in the state. About 3,200 people remained in shelters.

Craft, 57, said the home where he and his wife have lived more than three decades is elevated nearly three feet, but it still had about five feet of water standing inside for the better part of a week. Because of the damage, he said they'll start over, as will many others affected by the flood. For now, the Crafts are staying with relatives and trying to keep a sense of humor.

"We're like cockroaches down here," Craft said with a laugh. "You can't kill us."

____

Max Becherer reported from Walker, Louisiana, and Emily Wagster Pettus reported from Jackson, Mississippi.

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