On August 12th, 2016, rain began to fall on Baton Rouge, Louisiana. There was nothing unusual about it at first. But before long the situation took on a much more ominous look.
“I remember the initial shock that hit me,” said FCA Baton Rouge Area Director Andy Stroup. “I asked myself, ‘Is this really happening? Surely the rain is going to stop.’”
But it didn’t stop. Over three days, it dumped four trillion gallons of water, flooding over 100,000 homes and inundating schools across twenty-two districts. The streets became canals; stop signs were transformed by makeshift means into “No Wake Zone” signs, because the only way to travel the streets was by boat. What was happening would soon be known as “the 1,000-year flood.”
As schools shut their doors, Andy and his team realized that their ministry plans had to change. The middle and high school sports ministries would have to wait.
“We grabbed cases of water and just started driving,” he said. “We had to do something.”
As they drove around offering water bottles, hugs, and support to everyone they met, Andy and his team shared the love of Christ all over the shocked and suffering city.
Then Andy’s mind turned to his parents’ house. As Andy went in to help, the reality of it all literally came home to him.
“I saw my momma’s wedding album, and all the books she read to me as a child, completely ruined,” he remembered tearfully. “These aren’t just things, these are our memories.”
With the sting still in his eyes, Andy received a call from LSU’s softball team—they were coming to help.
As the scope of the need began to reveal itself, the FCA team began to reach out through social media to ask for more help. Soon family, friends, and sports teams both local and distant began to send resources, supplies, and people down to Baton Rouge.
In Denver, Colorado, the staff of a ministry called Coaches Time Out were meeting about regular ministry business, but they were distracted; Andy was on their minds. They’d been partnering with him for several years in serving and equipping youth-sports coaches in Louisiana. They reached out to him with an offer of help—anything they could do.
“Andy said they were well-supported with supplies, but they needed people to come,” said CTO’s Krystin McConnell. “I asked our team, ‘What if something like that happened in Denver and no one came to help us?” They decided—in virtually the same minute—to go.
Krystin and the team soon discovered that hotels and rental cars were extremely hard to come by; hotels were filled with newly-homeless families, and those who could afford rental cars to replace their waterlogged vehicles had booked them all. The nearest available rental car was in Houston, TX. Foregoing that option, they eventually found accommodations and got on a plane, headed directly into the mess.
Landing ten days after the flood, the team came face-to-face with a staggering scene of devastation.
“There were families staying in this dirty, run-down hotel who had lost everything,” said Krystin. “We were experiencing just a taste of what they were going through. ”
“At first you might think, ‘It’s just rain,’” said CTO’s Josh Battle, “but just imagine that everything in your home that isn’t hanging on the wall, or in the closet, is gone. You need to quickly empty your house of all your soaked possessions because you can’t let it all rot in your house. You go down the streets and see that they’re muddy and lined with trash, refrigerators, rotting food, moldy clothes, and ruined furniture. After you get everything out, you then have to rip out all the floors, drywall, everything—down to the studs and the concrete foundation. From there, you start over.”
“You only have two weeks to go in and gut the homes before everything rots and it becomes dangerous to work in,” said CTO Director Joe Broussard. “There’s a very narrow window and it was closing quickly.
Linking arms with their FCA friends, the team went to work.
About 90% of Baton Rouge’s residents—over 200,000 people—were displaced as their homes were being frantically gutted to start the dry-out-and-rebuild process. Many schools remained closed, with desks and chairs piled high in an attempt to save as much as possible. After a month without classes, displaced students and teachers began to double up at unaffected schools, beginning their school day in the late afternoon as the other students and teachers were wrapping up theirs.
One of the schools meeting elsewhere was Southside Junior High School. With their own school facilities unfit for use and all their equipment destroyed, Southside’s football coaches called for their first practice to be held in another county on September 6th. The boys practiced in t-shirts and shorts.
Lee Ann Watson, mother of Southside 7th-grader Dylan, recalls that day:
“My son had been so excited,” she says. “But after practice, I saw each one of the boys come out looking so sad. They weren’t fired up about the upcoming season like I expected. When Dylan got into the car he looked at me and said, ‘Momma, we lost everything. Unless we get a miracle before Friday, we have no season.’”
Head Coach Brett Chatelain regretfully told parents that, with all the equipment ruined, the team wouldn’t be able to compete in inter-school play. He too acknowledged that it would take a miracle for their season to get started.
“It’s about more than just the game of football,” LeeAnn lamented. “Sports are the only hope for normalcy that these boys might have right now.”
Several Southside parents launched a GoFundMe campaign and spread the word through social media that they needed to raise $10,000 to make the boys’ miracle. As family and friends began to share the team’s plea, the sports community began to take notice.
Across the hall from CTO, the team at TheIncrease.com heard Southside Junior High’s plea and promptly shared the message with their community, including the pro athletes who write the site’s content. Baltimore Ravens tight end Benjamin Watson immediately pledged that if the first $5,000 was raised, he would match it. Soon thereafter, former Panthers cornerback Charles Tillman spoke up, saying, “The first $5k is raised.”
“When I saw the response by these two men, I was floored,” related Tiffany Bailey, the former Southside teacher who had first Tweeted the cry for help. “I called up Lee Ann, who was just as shocked as I was. We couldn’t believe it!”
For Tillman and Watson, the tragedy hit too close to home to just stand by and watch. With $2,600 already given by people in the community through GoFundMe, the two NFL stars made sure that the rest of the $10,000 was raised that day. With the goal achieved, everyone expected the donations to stop.
But they didn’t stop. Over the next two days, the total ballooned to $20,000. The Southside Junior High football team had its miracle.
“These kids were victims of circumstances that they had no control or even influence over,” Tillman shared. “When I was young, my parents divorced—circumstances I had no control or influence over—and football was the only safe haven I had. I found brotherhood there, which helped reinforce the kind of character that my parents instilled in me. Junior high is an especially influential time in a child’s life, so I knew that this was really important. The devil loves an idle mind and I didn’t want him to have a chance with these kids.”
Watson, who has spent a lot of time in the region visiting his wife’s family, had already been paying attention to the events in Baton Rouge.
“We’d been following the flooding pretty closely,” he said, “and this particular situation really struck me. I saw that some young men lost all their football equipment and recognized an opportunity to love on them. I may never meet these people, and I don’t know them from Adam, but it’s part of our mission to share the love of Christ with those in need.”
The CTO team reached Baker, Louisiana and the flood-damaged house of Miss Brenda Jackson, and got out their sledgehammers. Though Miss Brenda’s home required a complete tear-down and re-build, her continual joy inspired the team, bringing new energy to the tired and sore volunteers.
“Every time Miss Brenda started to get down, she would just start praising Jesus,” Krystin related, wide-eyed. “’I praise You, Jesus, that my house is still standing,’ she would say. ‘I praise You, Jesus, for this team that is working so hard.’”
The morning after the team finished gutting her house, Miss Brenda went to work serving meals to others at the local shelter.
Nearby, Healing Place Church transformed one of their buildings into a distribution center for much-needed supplies. Traffic cones lined the parking lot, directing more than 1,700 daily carloads of people hoping to receive these resources.
At another location, the church’s men’s ministry, Cooking for Christ, prepared and served thousands of meals for families in need and volunteers alike.
“We never once had to think about our meals while we were there,” said Krystin. “God provided a meal every time we needed to eat. Total strangers would drive up and drop off meals for us just because they wanted to help too.”
CTO’s team spent three days pouring all their energy into demolition and cleanup, realizing that day 3 for them was day 14 for the locals. And there was no end in sight.
“When it was time to leave, I felt like we were abandoning our team—our friends,” said Krystin. “There was still so much work to be done.”
The rest of the team felt the same.
“When the plane took off on Sunday, we could look down and see the neighborhoods that were flooded, and the trash lining the streets,” recalled Josh. “We realized what a long way they had yet to go.”
The tide of pro athlete involvement didn’t recede at Southside Junior High. Sixteen-year NFL veteran Kevin Mawae was tied down in Chicago, having just joined the Bears’ coaching staff. He grew up in Baton Rouge and is enshrined in LSU’s Hall Of Fame. It was he who first connected the CTO team with the Louisiana FCA chapter several years ago. The helplessness of watching his wife and two kids, his extended family, and his friends experience the disaster and its aftermath tugged powerfully at him.
Aching to help in any way he could, he partnered with the CTO team to post a video on Twitter asking people to give time and resources to help his hometown. This fundraising effort also set a goal of $10,000.
“I may not be able to be there right now,” Mawae said, “but I can use my influence to let others know how to help and where to give.”
Many jumped in to give, including Benjamin Watson again. In a second echo of the flood, the flow of money totaled $12,645.
“There are a lot of tragedies in our world,” said Watson. “You can’t do everything for everybody, but you can be sensitive to the things that God puts on your heart.” He added, “Social media can do some really cool things for people that we may never be able to meet, in places that we may never be able to go. But the Lord can.”
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees also responded. He held a raffle; the prize was a sideline photo-op with him and access to his family suite for the September 1 game against the Ravens. 100% of the proceeds—$33,000—were sent to relief efforts in Baton Rouge.
Baltimore Ravens running back Justin Forsett donated $7,500 to flood relief and supplies for victims as well as his time as a volunteer before that same September 1 game.
While the relief funds fell on Baton Rouge just like the rain that had started it all, the demolition and cleanup work continues, and will continue indefinitely, with professional crews taking over in what have become hazardous areas. The time and work of volunteers had a great impact, but perhaps even greater was the love and hope that was spread among the people who joined hands and hearts to bring restoration to Baton Rouge in Jesus’ name.
“I’m not surprised by the people of Baton Rouge,” Mawae said with pride. “We are a very community-oriented people so when the floods hit, everyone gathered around to help each other out. That’s what the body of Christ is all about.”
“There’s still so much work to be done,” FCA’s Andy recognized. “We were just one small group out of hundreds. The body of Christ came in and served well during this time. I know that so many have come, and many more will come, to the Lord because of this.”
Even a disaster can be used by God as a catalyst of reconciliation and healing.
“Our city has been through a lot this summer,” Andy reflected. “After the shootings, the protests, and the murders, this happened. Yet even after all the things that came to try to divide the people here, this city came together. People saw others hurting and did everything they could to show love.”
“Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.” -1 Corinthians 12:12-14