The Catholic Commentator

Father Jamin David paused, allowing himself a smile and even a delicate chuckle as the memories, never really far away, once again surfaced.

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Volunteers from St. Margaret, Queen of Scotland Church in Albany and St. Thomas the Apostle Chapel in Springfield helped distribute 1,500 plates of jambalaya provided by Zatarain’s after flood waters had receded. File photo by Richard Meek | The Catholic Commentator

 

What a difference a year can make.

One year ago, jocularity was in short supply as Father David watched water creep ever so close to St. Margaret, Queen of Scotland Church in Albany, where he is pastor. A relentless rain that would continue for several days had left the church parish on a virtual island.

Father David recognized the gravity of the impending disaster and began mobilizing what would be his own small armada of volunteers. No one could have possibly predicted what the next few days and even months would entail, and such snappy terms as “I-12 Ministry” and “Home Starter Kits” would seep into the church parlance.

“It happened so fast,” Father David said.  “(On Aug. 13) we noticed some of our neighbors starting to deal with flooding issues. We turned on the television and realized it was not just us but the greater Baton Rouge area.”

He and his volunteers only had to steal a glance at nearby Interstate 12 to fully grasp the crisis that was intensifying by the minute. Traffic was paralyzed, held hostage by rising waters that had shut down the normally bustling artery in both directions.

Father David said he spoke to law enforcement officials for an update and was informed it would be beneficial if people trapped in their cars had at least a place to use the rest room.

“So we opened up the parish hall, turned on the A/C and dug out whatever we had in the pantry,” he said. “That’s how it started.”

Initially, the food supply was limited but then came what Father David calls the “literal multiplication of the loaves and fishes.” A professional caterer on her way to an event in St. Tammany Parish realized she would not be able to make it so rather than see the food spoil she had it transported from her car to the St. Margaret parish hall, serving hundreds of motorists.

Livingston Parish civil officials chipped in and dropped off additional food and necessities. In a span of 48 hours, more than 1,500 people were fed, able to get water and use the facilities. 

“We thought we can’t sit in the rectory, let the flood waters recede and then we’ll do something,” he said. “I think responding without totally thinking was a good thing.

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“Most people would never think, ‘Let’s open our doors and help people that need to go to the bathroom off of the interstate.’ But it was a gut feeling.”

Once waters receded from I-12, relief efforts shifted to St. Thomas the Apostle Chapel in Springfield, where Father David is also pastor. On a sultry morning, and under a broiling August sun, 1,500 plates of jambalaya supplied by Zatarain’s were served to area residents, who formed a traffic line around the block to pick up the plates. 

From that point, families who did not flood began cooking for families who were either flooded or doing remediation on their homes. Father David said at least 50 to 100 partnerships were developed. 

As the focus shifted to recovery, Father David and then-Deacon Ryan Hallford, who was spending his diaconate internship at St. Margaret, collaborated on an innovative concept that would garner national acclaim.

The pair developed the Home Starter Kit program, offering flood victims the opportunity to select pre-determined furniture packages from Olinde’s Furniture in Baton Rouge, which was offering the furniture at the store’s cost. Father David said 350 people took advantage of one or more of the options that included a couch, dinette set, mattresses and bedding, coming to a combined total of $350,000.

“(Olinde’s) wanted to help the community get back as quickly as they could,” he said. “As a matter of fact, their quote was ‘as much as you need, however long you need. I think it is a work of mercy.”

“Almost everybody got a couch and everybody got some variation of the beds, depending on family situations,” he said, adding that even when backorders occurred, it worked out for the best because of the time difference between victims having their houses completed and ready for delivery. “I think it is the Holy Spirit.”

Although there remains much work to be done, Father David said the majority of the 60 to 80 percent of St. Margaret and St. Stephen parishioners who flooded are back in their homes in varying stages. Unfortunately, he said some families have not been able to touch their homes, still awaiting insurance claims, dealing with contractors or coping with other delays.

“There are great signs of recovery which is a blessing but for those who have not had that blessing yet it’s pretty horrific,” said Father David.

 Despite the catastrophic circumstances, he said a blessing to arise from the carnage was the unification of the St. Margaret and St. Stephen communities. He also noted how some families left their own flooded homes to assist others. 

He said he was proud of the effort and that for a small parish that had the majority of its parishioners flood to be able to outreach even outside of its own boundaries to assist the greater Baton Rouge area is awesome.

“It brought people together that would have never crossed,” Father David said. “It was neighbor helping neighbor.

“It’s left some scars in our community, but at the same time it has left a lasting impression that not only Catholics but non Catholics saying St. Margaret did a lot for us and we appreciate that. And I think it solidified the reputation of St. Margaret for the Albany-Springfield community that they are one of the leaders not only with flood recovery but matters of a spiritual nature because they are intertwined together. I think people will remember that.”