When Erin Laiche saw a chance to help Floridians affected by Hurricane Michael, it didn’t take her long to say yes. She’d been waiting two years.
Laiche was among about 100 Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints members who traveled to Panama City in recent weekends. She was among the volunteers who knew what it was like to have disaster strike.
Laiche’s Gonzales home took on 2 feet of water in the August 2016 flood that struck the Baton Rouge area. But after the downpour came the outpouring of assistance. About 20 people showed up to help gut her house.
“It was one of those things where so many people showed up to help us that we were turning people away,” Laiche said. “We were having to say, ‘No, we are under control. Go help somebody else who doesn’t have anybody.’ Ever since then, we were just looking for ways to pay it forward. We just felt like we owed it to somebody, and when this opportunity arose, I said I’ve got to go.”
She joined a group on the last weekend of October, two weeks after the hurricane struck. High winds snapped thousands of pine trees, some of which landed on houses or blocked access to them. For the first time in her life, Laiche became a lumberjack.
“I am a DIYer kind of person. I can build things, and I have my own power tools. I’m a little handy with that type of stuff, but I’m not too crafty with a chain saw,” she said. “But we made it happen.”
They also removed lots of debris, including pieces of metal roofs that had been torn off by the storm.
“It was so surreal,” Laiche said. “I’ve never seen that kind of destruction on such a huge scale. For miles and miles and miles, it was just gone. Car lots, every car had windows blown out and had stuff against them where the metal roof on the building next door might have hit 10 cars. … They had campers that were upside down. Just crazy.”
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In addition to physical labor, the volunteers spent time with those whose lives had been turned upside down. Laiche was much more familiar with this than being on the business end of a chain saw. Some of the people, she said, seemed to need someone to feel what they were going through.
“I was able to actually talk to a couple of ladies who lived there, and I think just the fact that I could relate (helped),” Laiche said. “I’m not going to say I could relate on the same level, because theirs was devastation that I could never imagine. Their homes were just wiped out, some of them.
“I told one lady that when you walk in and see everything that you’ve worked so hard for just gone, you can’t wrap your brain around it. It will buckle your knees at first. Your reality comes to you, and you say, ‘OK, there’s nothing I can do about it now. I’ve got to snap out of it and move forward.’ But, in that moment, it’s devastating.”
Groups of LDS volunteers from Baton Rouge, Gonzales, Lafayette and Morgan City went to Panama City on three consecutive weekends. They’re among 625 LDS members from Louisiana who participated in disaster relief in the Florida Panhandle, according to Becky Bluth, public affairs director with the church.
“It was kind of a ministering feeling just to let them know that it is temporary,” Laiche said. “It’s going to be a long time, but it does get better. One lady, I told her, ‘Believe it or not, some blessings are going to come out of this. I can’t tell you what they are, and you don’t know what they are, but one day you’ll be able to look back and say, ‘Wow, look where I am, now.' I think I just I gave them some hope.”