Winter storms that pounded Texas in early 2023 wrought havoc in Austin, prompting teams from Southern Baptists of Texas Convention Disaster Relief to deploy to the region in early February.
As of Feb. 22, volunteers remained on site.
Four chainsaw teams have rotated work, completing nearly 70 jobs in Pflugerville, Hutto, Round Rock and Northwest Austin, said Scottie Stice, DR director.
“Teams from First Baptist Pflugerville deployed twice, with crews from First Baptist Bellville, Boyd Baptist Church of Bonham and First Baptist Melissa joining them or arriving to serve separately,” Stice said.
Each chainsaw team includes 5–10 volunteers.
Chaplains and assessors also deployed to the region, as have incident management personnel and feeding and shower/laundry crews.
A cooperative effort
Teams were prepared to stand down Feb. 17 until a request for assistance came from the city of Austin to remain in the area and continue efforts in Northwest Austin.
Assessors and an incident management team volunteer from Oklahoma Baptist DR arrived Feb. 20 to help.
“Having an IMT member from Oklahoma Baptist DR is a first for us,” Stice said. “We have deployed to Oklahoma, and they have helped us here in the past, but we are looking forward to working together on the management side.”
Such teamwork illustrates the “cooperative nature of Southern Baptist Disaster Relief,” Stice added.
Broken refrigerator, broken heart
“Larry” was among survivors assisted by DR, an elderly military veteran whose refrigerator had broken during the storm.
Food provided by DR volunteers was his first meal in two days, noted Mike Jansen, IMT leader. One day later Larry accepted Christ as his Savior.
Finding Larry was a divine appointment, said Debby Nichols, a DR chaplain from DeKalb. She and fellow chaplain/assessor Linda Mitter of Rockwall had completed their assignments for the day and were driving around Round Rock neighborhoods to see if they had missed anything.
An enormous tree, split in half, caught their attention.
“That tree was God’s sign to us,” Nichols said. “We found Larry’s house with branches above his front door.”
The women knocked, explained who they were and asked if he needed help.
“I am not worthy,” Larry replied.
Nichols and Mitter visited with him and learned he had quit a college teaching job to care for his wife, who later died of cancer.
“He had been stuck,” Nichols said of Larry’s despair.
Volunteer Ted Boswell, a retired pastor who teaches Sunday School at First Baptist Pflugerville, connected Larry with a Veterans Affairs advocate in his class, who is providing assistance. They brought groceries, too, but the biggest gift was the gospel.
Chainsaws and gospel conversations
Opportunities to share Christ abound in DR work, volunteers say.
Mike Phillips, a chainsaw team leader from Bellville, recalled his group’s encounter with Zheng, a Chinese migrant, at her multigenerational home in Round Rock. As the team finished work at a nearby house and climbed into their trucks Feb. 8, Zheng approached to ask if they would check her damaged trees.
“We just felt like we should,” Phillips said. “She asked us what we charged. We told her nothing, that we worked for the Lord.”
While nothing in Zheng’s front yard needed immediate attention, her backyard told another story. After having her sign an official work order, the men removed a large tree limb hanging precariously above her young son’s play fort.
“If the wind had kicked up, that limb could have blown down and injured someone,” Phillips said.
Although fluent in English, Zheng didn’t appear to understand what “working for the Lord” meant, but team members talked with her that day and the following morning, when they returned to remove more debris. They gave her a Bible and a cross.
Zheng wept — tears of gratitude and possibly spiritual understanding, Phillips said.
The team also shared the gospel with a Travis County Sheriff’s Office SWAT team member.
“We let him know why we were doing what we were doing,” Phillips said. “We planted a seed.”