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April 25, 2014

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Summerlin church sends help 1,600 miles away

Five-person relief team goes to Baton Rouge for hurricane cleanup

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From left: David Selby, Keith Clough, Marlin Mueller, Jim Egan and Doug Rierson stand next to a tree that toppled in the winds of Hurricane Gustav. Within a few days of the disaster, the 700-member congregation of Faith Community Lutheran Church began raising funds for a five-person relief team to travel to Baton Rouge and provide hurricane relief.

For Summerlin resident Doug Rierson, the sights he saw in Louisiana in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Gustav last year reminded him of tornado damage he had witnessed before in the Midwest — but on a much larger scale.

"You could go for blocks and see nothing wrong with anyone's house," he said. "All of a sudden, you go into an area where it's just total devastation. And there were no signs anywhere. All the signs on businesses and streets had been blown away."

After Gustav made landfall on the Louisiana coast on Sept. 1 — causing approximately $15 billion in damage — a church 1,600 miles away in Summerlin felt it was time to spring into action.

Within a few days of the disaster, the 700-member congregation of Faith Community Lutheran Church began raising funds for a five-person relief team to travel to Baton Rouge and provide hurricane relief.

"When people realized that Gustav didn't blow New Orleans away, all the reporters got back on their news trucks and went home," said Rierson, a member of the congregation at Faith Community Lutheran. "But this storm really wiped out the Baton Rouge area."

Just a month earlier in 2008, the church had sent a 12-person relief team to New Orleans, as part of continuing relief efforts in the aftermath of 2005's Hurricane Katrina, said Linda Kurtz, director of Care Ministries at Faith Community Lutheran.

"Everyone wanted to be a part of this latest effort (in Baton Rouge), whether they traveled themselves or supported it financially," Kurtz said.

After arriving in Louisiana on Oct. 20, the group linked up with Trinity Lutheran Church in Baton Rouge, which owned a 3-bedroom house on its property.

The five men from Summerlin would spend the next seven days with sleeping bags and air mattresses. Upon waking each morning, they were greeted with lengthy "to-do" lists and directions to different locations around town that were in need of help.

"Each day got a little more complicated with a bigger task," Rierson said. "Soon we were asked to rebuild the side of a lady's house. A couple of us were contractors, so we said 'why not?'"

The group also participated in fence repair and tree removal, which involved chopping up damaged Cypress and Water Oak trees that used to stand more than 100 feet tall before toppling over in 100 mph winds.

"The people in the area were pretty burned out," Rierson said. "They've had three years of hurricanes and Baton Rouge also took in hundreds of thousands of folks that evacuated from New Orleans three years ago."

What still stands out in Rierson's mind is the lack of trust that the locals initially had with he and the rest of the volunteers.

"Everyone you talk to has a story about how they've been taken advantage of or lied to," he said. "The people were humbled by the fact that we were there, but they were pretty skeptical at first."

One of the team's last projects before heading home was a joint effort with "God's Gumbo Gang" from Trinity Lutheran Church — cooking a Cajun meal for more than 300 FEMA workers in Baton Rouge.

"Some of the locals told us that we were a unique group," Rierson said. "They were surprised that we never said 'no.' But we didn't think it was an option for us to say 'no.'"

Faith Community Lutheran is now raising funds for another relief mission that will head to Nassau Bay, Texas, on Jan. 25 to provide assistance in the wake of 2008's Hurricane Ike.

"Our goal is to make sure the church is a bridge to the community," Kurtz said. "We need to go out into the world and bring about change."

For more information about Faith Community Lutheran Church visit www.faithlasvegas.org.

Jeff O’Brien can be reached at 990-8957 or [email protected].

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